[VIEWPOINT]A wider channel of interchangeExplosions that devastated an elementary school and almost an entire residential area around Yongcheon station in North Korea on April 22 provided a rare occasion for South Koreans to show compassion to their compatriots in the North. But if it were not for the photos and video footage taken by a relief organization, the disaster could have been hidden behind the iron curtain of North Korea.
The photos taken by the UN World Food Program officials showed scenes of devastation: everything within 800 meters of the blast site was wiped out, and what remained was reminiscent of a bombarded battleground. Rows of wounded children, lying two to a bed, had bandages over their eyes. In the streets, workers were removing the debris of buildings with ox carts. The photos conveyed a powerful message to South Koreans: “Let’s help Yongcheon residents!”
The South Korean government promised to send $1 million worth of relief goods on April 24 and accepted Pyeongyang’s request for 13 items, including construction materials, heavy-duty equipment and vehicles, in talks on April 27.
At the same time, various civic, religious and volunteer groups sent volunteers to Dandong, a Chinese city bordering Sinuiju across the Yalu River. They bought relief goods there and arranged for Chinese trucks to deliver them to Yongcheon. A religious organization sent 5,000 blankets on April 27. “The Korean Movement to Help Yongcheon Residents,” an association of civic groups, acquired 300 million won ($257,500) worth of relief goods in Dandong and delivered the items to Yongcheon.
South Korean relief activities by way of Dandong were aimed at providing immediate aid to the disaster victims. And it worked, although the prices of grain, foodstuffs, medicine, blankets and other daily items in Dandong soared.
Full-scale relief was launched by the Korean National Red Cross in cooperation with local governments, businesses, schools, civic groups and media outlets. Relief goods and money donated by individuals, businesses and various organizations were channeled to district and provincial Red Cross offices. Local Red Cross offices arranged for the goods to be transported to a depot in Ilsan, north of Seoul. There, they were packed for shipping. So far, more than 600 five-ton truckloads of goods have been shipped to Yongcheon.
Despite South Koreans’ enthusiasm to help, we have heard almost no news from Yongcheon since the first reports of the April 22 accident, which claimed 161 lives, wounded 1,300 and left 8,000 without shelter. We still don’t know how many of the 1,300 wounded are in serious condition. Especially, it would be good to learn what happened to those young ones with the bandaged eyes. Did they lose their sight? Can’t we help them have better medical treatment?
We don’t know whether the huge amount of relief goods sent to the North has been delivered to the victims, and what progress has been made to rebuild the demolished housing and school buildings. The information is important in order to know what else can be done for the people of Yongcheon.
It must be remembered that the photos and video footage showing the devastation and suffering have moved the international community as well as South Koreans to launch massive relief activities. North Korea must admit that opening the real situation to the outside world has resulted in a better approach to the damage and suffering of the accident victims.
Now, North Korea must make two bold decisions. It must allow South Korean physicians to visit Yongcheon and give medical treatment to the accident victims, especially the young ones whose eyes were damaged. Also, the North must allow South Korean engineers and volunteers to participate in the rehabilitation of housing and school buildings.
The rainy season is approaching. The monsoon season is predicted to be particularly severe over the peninsula. It will be disastrous if the tents of Yongcheon’s victims are swept away or flooded. They should not be left to suffer a double disaster.
The rehabilitation of housing units and school buildings should be accelerated. At least some buildings must be completed before the start of the rains, so that homeless Yongcheon residents can be accommodated. North Korea will find South Korean construction engineers and volunteers to be of help.
The voluntary movement among South Koreans to aid Yongcheon’s residents has provided an occasion for restoring contact and trust between Koreans, North and South. By allowing volunteers from the South to visit Yongcheon and help fellow Koreans there, we can broaden the channel of interchange. It will also shorten the road to unification.
* The writer is the opinion page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo