Blast, Mushroom Cloud Reported in N. Korea
SEOUL, South Korea - A large explosion occurred in the northern part of North Korea, sending a huge column of smoke into the air on an important anniversary of the communist regime, a South Korean news agency reported Sunday.
The South Korean government said it was trying to confirm the report of an explosion at 11 a.m. on Thursday in Yanggang province near the border with China.
The Yonhap news agency carried conflicting reports from unidentified sources, with one in Washington saying the incident could be related to a natural disaster such as a forest fire. It also cited a diplomatic source in Seoul as raising the possibility of an accident or a nuclear test.
Although North Korea is believed to be developing nuclear weapons, international experts would likely have been able to detect the test if one had occurred several days ago.
"We understand that a mushroom-shaped cloud about 3.5- to 4-kilometer (2.2 miles to 2.5 miles) in diameter was monitored during the explosion," the source in Seoul told Yonhap. Yonhap described the source as "reliable."
Thursday was the anniversary of North Korea's founding on Sept. 9, 1948. Leader Kim Jong Il uses the occasion to stage performances and other events to bolster loyalty among the impoverished North Korean population.
Experts have speculated that North Korea might use a major anniversary to conduct a nuclear-related test, but one analyst said an open test, as opposed to one below ground, would be hard in such a small country.
"It's difficult to say, but it won't be easy for North Korea to conduct a nuclear test without resulting in massive losses of its own people," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert in Seoul. "I think there is a more possibility that it is a simple accident, rather than a deliberate nuclear test."
Yonhap's diplomatic source in Seoul said the explosion took place "not far" from a military base that holds ballistic missiles. North Korea, which has a large missile arsenal and more than a million soldiers, is dotted with military installations.
The damage and crater left by the explosion in Kim Hyong Jik county was big enough to be noticed by a satellite, a source in Beijing told Yonhap.
After a National Security Council meeting, South Korea's Unification Minister Chung Dong-young said the government was trying to confirm the report about the explosion. Asked about the possibility of a nuclear test, he said:
"I believe some foreign media made such reports. However, currently, we believe that it is not related to such reports."
On Saturday, North Korea said recent revelations that South Korea conducted secret nuclear experiments involving uranium and plutonium made the communist state more determined to pursue its own nuclear programs.
The South Korean experiments, conducted in 1982 and 2000, were likely to further complicate the already stalled six-nation talks aimed at dismantling the North's nuclear development. South Korea has said the experiments were purely for research and did not reflect a desire to develop weapons.
On April 22, train wagons at a railway station exploded in the North Korean town of Ryongchon, killing 160 people and injuring an estimated 1,300, according to some estimates. The blast was believed to have been sparked by a train laden with oil and chemicals that hit power lines.
The explosion on Thursday was bigger than the Ryongchon train explosion, which devastated a wide area, Yonhap said.