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North Korea: Officials probe whether explosion victims tried to save Kim portraits

North Korean officials investigating a series of gas explosions that killed at least nine people are focusing their probe on whether families in Hyesan did everything they could to save portraits of the Kim dictators.

The blasts shook the city, in the far north-east of the country, shortly after 6pm and were apparently caused when fuel stored in a house caught fire, the Daily NK web site reported. The initial blaze caused a cylinder of liquid petroleum gas to ignite, triggering a chain reaction of at least 10 explosions in neighbouring homes.

As well as the nine fatalities, at least 30 local residents are understood to have been injured. There are unconfirmed reports that three survivors of the initial blast have since died of their injuries in hospital.

Fires that spread through the densely packed residential district had to be put out by local people as no fire engines arrived to fight the blaze.

The first officials on the scene immediately inquired whether any households had rescued portraits of Kim Il-sung, the ‘Great Leader’ and founder of the nation, and ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-un inherited the position of North Korean dictator in 2011, and his image is beginning to appear alongside those of his father and grandfather.

It is not clear whether any of the survivors did brave the flames to rescue pictures of the nation’s leaders rather than saving the lives of their families.

Every home, workplace, school and public building in North Korea is required to have sylised portraits of the three men who have ruled the nation since its founding in 1945 on prominent display. Those that fail to do so immediately come under suspicion of being part of the ‘hostile class’ of citizens.

Rules on the placement and care for the portraits are complicated and change frequently. In homes, the images must be placed on the most prominent wall in the living room and nothing else can be put on that wall. They must be located at the highest point and should be angled to look downwards.

The pictures must be kept clean and the local ‘inminban’, or neighbourhood watch, will pay unannounced visits to make sure that the portraits are in place and well cared-for.

Citizens are encouraged to see the images of the Kim clan as being more precious than their own lives and those who do rescue portraits receive commendations.

In late 2009, the captain and chief engineer of a cargo ship that sank in frigid waters off China were proclaimed ‘Labour Heroes’ by the state for attempting to save two portraits from the bridge. Both men died. Their families received gold medals and the Order of the National Flag, First Class. 

Earlier this year, a North Korean mother was threatened with jail after saving her two children from a house fire but allowed portraits of North Korea’s leaders to burn. 

The woman was placed under investigation by the country’s Ministry of State Security after a fire broke out in a home shared by two families in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, close to the Chinese border.

Both sets of parents were out at the time the fire started, but raced back to save their families after seeing smoke. In the process, one set of portraits was destroyed.  

The video of the explosion yesterday, obtained by AP, showed plumes of black smoke rising from a North Korean city near the border with China amid reports that deadly explosions occurred there earlier this week.

There has been no official word from North Korea or China about what happened in the North Korean city of Hyesan yesterday. But South Korean media and outside monitoring groups reported that gas explosions in a residential area left dozens of people dead or injured. 

The video acquired shows orange flames and black smoke shooting into the sky from Hyesan as loud explosion-like sounds are heard. A few people can be seen watching the scene from the Chinese side of the border.

The video was provided by Wang Bo, a travel agent who said he shot it from a park in the Chinese border town of Changbai.

‘I just saw explosions and there were a lot of onlookers who were looking in that direction. We don’t know the reason why there were explosions,’ Wang said.

Wang, who said he has previously visited Hyesan, said the explosions happened not far from the city’s orphanage and tourism office.

Many Chinese border towns are very close to North Korea, separated only by the river border.

Wang said from Binjiang Park in Changbai where he shot the video, ‘in summer, we can see North Koreans swim in the river, and in winter, people can walk on the frozen Yalu River.’

The Associated Press verified the location after examining other tourist videos of the park that show the same structures and lights. Other videos of the reported explosions have been circulating on Chinese and South Korean social media.

In Seoul, South Korea’s spy agency and the Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, said they couldn’t immediately confirm the reported explosions. Unification Ministry spokesman Yoh Sangkey still told reporters that he felt sorry for any possible casualties.

The Seoul-based Daily NK, which specializes in North Korea news, on Wednesday cited unidentified sources in North Korea as saying that the explosions left 15 people dead and the death toll could rise. It earlier reported gasoline stored at a house in Hyesan ignited and led to the explosion of a nearby liquid petroleum gas cylinder, and this caused chain explosions of gas cylinders attached to other houses.

Other South Korean media carried similar reports. Ahn Kyung-su, a researcher, said one of his North Korean refugee sources in South Korea told him that she heard from her relative in Hyesan about the reported explosions during a phone conversation on Tuesday.

North Korean state media, which rarely acknowledge deadly accidents in the country, haven’t commented on the reported explosions.

But in 2017, state media reported six people died when the roof of a mine collapsed. In 2014, state media said government officials had offered an apology for the collapse of an apartment building under construction in Pyongyang, the capital.

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