Beijing (AFP) – A road accident in North Korea has caused “heavy casualties” among Chinese tourists, the foreign ministry in Beijing said on Monday.
The ministry provided few details but China’s state broadcaster CGTN earlier tweeted that more than 30 people died when a tour bus fell from a bridge in North Korea. The tweet was later deleted.
China was informed about the accident on Sunday night, and its embassy personnel in Pyongyang rushed to the scene and are working to manage the situation, the foreign ministry statement said.
The vast majority of foreign tourists to North Korea are Chinese, with the Cold War-era allies sharing a long land border and operating flights between the two countries.
Western visitors to the North once averaged around 5,000 a year, but numbers have been hit recently by a US travel ban –- Americans accounted for around 20 percent of the market –- and official warnings from other countries.
Tens of thousands of Chinese tourists are believed to visit the North every year, with many crossing via train through the Chinese border city of Dandong. For some, North Korea provides a window into what Communist China may have looked like decades ago.
Chinese tourism to the North has continued even though Beijing has enforced a slew of United Nations sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
The accident occurred in North Hwanghae province, the foreign ministry said.
The province lies south of the capital and stretches to the border with the South, including the city of Kaesong, an ancient Korean capital with historical sites.
More recently, the area hosted a manufacturing complex operated with South Korea.
The tour group was travelling by bus from Kaesong to Pyongyang when the accident happened, according to the independent Seoul-based website NK News, which cited an unnamed source.
State broadcaster CCTV showed images of a large overturned vehicle with light rain falling on rescue vehicles and doctors attending to a patient in its news broadcast of the incident.
– Bad roads –
North Korean roads are largely poor and potholed, and in many areas they are dirt rather than tarmac.
Bridges are sometimes out of commission, requiring rivers to be forded or vehicles to take detours.
But the route from Pyongyang to Kaesong, where the accident reportedly happened, is one of the best in the country.
It runs north-south from Sinuiju on the Chinese border to the Demilitarized Zone on the border with the South, but nonetheless has little traffic, like all North Korean highways.
Tank traps have been installed along it in many locations towards the frontier –- sets of high concrete columns on either side of the road that can easily be blown up to create an obstruction for invading armour.
China’s foreign ministry said it was still verifying details of the situation.
The ministry said it activated an emergency mechanism Sunday night and is “sparing no efforts” to handle the situation, the statement said.