BEIJING - The humanitarian aid groups that are helping North Korea recover from last week's horrific train explosion are getting a peek into a nation that's so isolated and poor it's known as the Hermit Kingdom.
Aid workers toured a hospital empty of medicines, observed wounded children sleeping on supply cabinets and saw doctors skimp on stitches to close wounds. Hospitals are even short of sheets, they said.
At the site of Thursday's train explosion in Ryongchon, which obliterated much of the city near the Chinese border, all four bulldozers and trench diggers broke down over the weekend.
"All the cleanup was being done by hand, with shovels loading debris onto trucks," said Anthony Banbury, regional director for Asia of the United Nations' World Food Program, who visited the city Sunday.
Banbury and another WFP official, Richard Ragan, met with journalists yesterday in Beijing to recount their trip to Ryongchon and a nearby hospital two days earlier. They described their access as unprecedented and said it signaled not only the desperate need of the North Korean government but also possibly a watershed moment, in which Pyongyang chooses between continuing a slight opening to the world or retreating back into a shell.
The North Korean government has said the "very serious" explosion of a train laden with ammonium nitrate left 150 people dead, 1,300 injured and others missing.
The WFP issued a flash global appeal yesterday for 1,000 tons of food to help nourish the thousands who were injured or left homeless by the blast.
North Korean officials remain leery of some of the relief offers, rejecting a plan by South Korea to send $1 million in supplies across the demilitarized zone that separates the nations. The two sides met in the North border city of Kaesong for 90 minutes yesterday to work out ways to deliver the aid by sea.
Kim Jong Il's regime runs the risk of losing face before North Korea's 24 million people by accepting international aid. For decades, the North's Communist leaders have promoted the concept of juche, or complete self-reliance.
"If they decide at the end of this process that it was too risky, then you know we might see them draw back in. I'm hopeful that won't happen," said Ragan, the WFP's country director for North Korea. Ragan, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration, is thought to be the only U.S. citizen who is openly living in North Korea.
Ragan and Banbury said they saw horrendous facial wounds among blast victims taken to the main provincial hospital in Sinuiju, six miles north of Ryongchon.
"They were people who had the misfortune to be facing in the direction of the explosion when it occurred [and] had all kinds of glass and debris, dirt, pebbles, rubble literally blown into their face at a very high velocity," Banbury said.
The hospital had electricity - but little else.
"It had no modern medical equipment of any kind," Banbury said. "They had only the most basic of supplies. ... There seemed to be very little additional care that had been given other than bandages and ointment."
Only two of about 50 patients they saw had intravenous drips, crucial for delivering antibiotics and painkillers and for hydrating severe burn victims, he said.