32 Chinese tourists killed in North Korea bus crash were on ‘red tour’ marking Communist Party’s Korean war role
Trip to ‘commemorate Chinese combatants’ was organised by Xinghuo, a tour company formed by sympathisers with a Maoist rebel group
The 32 Chinese and four North Korean officials who were killed in a bus crash in North Korea were part of a “red tour” commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s Korean war role while observing the 65th anniversary of the war’s armistice.
Two Chinese who were seriously injured in Sunday night’s crash were sent back to China on Thursday, state broadcaster CCTV said.
No other details related to the accident’s cause or the identities of the dead were released.
The tour was organised by Xinghuo, a Beijing-based tour operator, the company confirmed to the South China Morning Post.
“The government has already taken over the company … I am just here to help handle the aftermath [of the accident],” a man who identified himself only by the surname of Yang said when he answered the Post’s call to the company on Wednesday.
The tour company was formed by people sympathetic to the cause of the Maoist rebel group Utopia, known in Chinese as Wuyouzhixiang.
China’s government shut down Utopia’s website in 2012.
A relative of one of the tourists on the bus told the Post that Utopia’s editor-in-chief Diao Weiming had been the tour guide.
The trip’s purpose was to “commemorate the great achievements of the Chinese voluntary combatants [in the war]”, according to a March advert in March on Xinghuo’s official WeChat account.
Due to last from April 18 to 24, the tour was designed to mark the anniversary of the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953.
The war began in June 1950 when North Korea, aided by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. China threw its support behind North Korea after the United Nations, with the United States as the main participant, came to South Korea’s aid.
The hostilities were known in China as “The War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea”.
Passengers on the bus – which Xinghuo’s website said was limited to 30 people – had paid 5,990 yuan (US$947) each for the tour.
The itinerary included visiting tombs of Chinese fighters who died fighting the Korean war, a trip to a North Korean war memorial museum, a visit to the site of the USS Pueblo, a spy ship that was seized off North Korea's east coast in the late 1960s, and a trip to the demilitarised zone that was established as a buffer zone between the two Koreas under the ceasefire pact.
Sources have told the Post that the accident occurred on the Reunification Highway, the main motorway that connects North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang with the southern city of Kaesong.
China’s foreign ministry has confirmed the crash took place in North Hwanghae, a province bordering the demilitarised zone, which will stage North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s historic talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday.
Two members of the accident victims’ families told the Post they were notified of the deaths only on Wednesday afternoon.
A woman who identified herself only as Wang said a local neighbourhood authority officially informed one of her relatives in Shanghai of her mother’s death on Wednesday afternoon.
“All information [about the accident] has been blocked ... I have been very worried,” Wang had said on Tuesday afternoon after not hearing from her mother, who was supposed to be back in China by then.
A man who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity said three of his family members, all of whom were retirement age, had signed up for the tour online.
He said he was unable to reach Xinghuo after making multiple phone calls as of Wednesday morning.
He criticised the company, saying it had “no quality”.
“We asked our friend in Beijing to go to [Xinghuo’s] office for us,” the man said on Tuesday night.
“A police [officer] was holding a list of names when the friend arrived.” The officer said the list merely contained information about individual tourists and “asked the friend not to blindly guess and not to worry” about the missing relatives, the man said.
China and North Korea’s leaders had both made public statements or appearances in the wake of the accident.
President Xi Jinping personally ordered China’s North Korean embassy to do whatever was necessary to help the two injured Chinese tourists and the families of those killed, according to state media.
North Korea’s official news agency said leader Kim Jong-un had expressed his “bitter sorrow” over the mishap. It released photos showing Kim holding an injured woman’s hand as she lay in her hospital bed, and CCTV broadcast images of Kim looking on as bodies were loaded onto a train for the journey home.
Xinghuo, which has said it was started by “red culture enthusiasts”, claims on its website to be “the first website to organise and pay attention to red tourism”.
“Utopia members want to use the red tours to promote their ideology and also to earn some money, as they have lost a lot of members in the past few years,” said a man surnamed Yuan who is known to be a past member of the group.
Utopia’s web forum was a well-known mainland resource for neo-Maoist and neo-Marxist thinking until it was shut down in the wake of the removal of high-ranking Communist Party official and Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, who was jailed for life for corruption in 2013 after his wife Gu Kailai’s conviction for murdering a British businessman.
Bo’s promotion of Mao-era culture, including a controversial “red songs” campaign, made him a darling of party hardliners, which some in Beijing feared he might attempt to harness.