Hard times for North Korean mines, and miners

Please pardon me for taking a few days of rest with my family during the holidays. I’ll have much to say about The Interview, Nate Thayer’s intrepid reporting on the AP, and other exigent matters after we’re all played out on Legos and board games. Meanwhile, I have a few posts that I’d written last weekend and had planned to publish when North Korea hit the front pages. Here is the first of them.

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A series of possibly conflicting reports from North Korea’s outer provinces claims that North Korea’s mining industry is under unusual strain, due to commodity price disputes with China, or due to drought causing a lack of hydroelectric power to pump water and run hoists. Despite promises of ten-fold wage increases for miners, those increases have failed to materialize, and the payment of baseline wages is unsteady:

“These days, because of a dispute over prices with China, iron ore exports have been halted, and in many cases salaries go unpaid,” the source said. “With operations suspended at the mine due to the extreme power shortage in the country, people are worried that they won’t even receive their 30,000 KPW.” [Daily NK]

Yet copper demand has risen … due to a “recent order for copper to produce bronze statues of the son and father Kims all across the country.” Imagine that.

Separately, the Daily NK reported on November 25th that operations at Musan, North Korea’s largest iron ore mine, had halted due to power shortages caused by low rainfall, and that this had caused “major disruptions” to the Kim Chaek and Songjin steel mills. (The report makes no reference to a price dispute with China. It seems improbable that both stories are true.)

Meanwhile, the regime is trying to raise coal production, perhaps to offset its lost iron ore revenue, by drafting slave labor from prisoners sentenced for “minor” offenses like selling smuggled CDs, and “conducting illegal business operations.”

“Upon orders to produce more coal, the state has been forcing male prisoners, who have been sent to labor training camps for misdemeanors, to coal mines,” a source in South Pyongan Province told the Daily NK on Friday.

Labor training camps refer to correctional facilities under the Ministry of People’s Security that hold criminals who have committed less serious crimes. They are held in these camps from anywhere between one to six months, where they carry out intense labor. Usually prisoners of these camps are mobilized to construction sites or farm areas, and coal mine work is considered an extreme exception,  reflecting the serious rate of power deficiency currently facing the North.

The prisoners are worked day and night at coal towns some kilometers away, eating and sleeping on site. [Daily NK]

The article goes on to detail a long list of occupational hazards (collapses, accidents due to lack of lighting) that either kill the miners or drain away their lives (malnutrition, exhaustion, beatings, and respiratory problems due to coal dust and poor ventilation).

She explained once such case, “A few days ago, a prisoner in his 40s fell unconscious from suffocation and then died from the added malnutrition. He then received ‘parole,’” going on to add, “With more residents learning about the conditions at coal mines for those in labor training camps, rumors are spreading that if you land yourself in a training camp, you come out dead.”

“Women who have their husbands in these camps are passing on bribes to security officials and trying everything they can to get them out,” she asserted. “As they get to know of how the inmates are working, not even because of a serious crime, people are saying even during the Japanese colonial period they did exploit people this much.” 

Although the drafting of prisoners as unskilled labor suggests a labor shortage, some (other?) part of the North Korean government is exporting (skilled?) mine laborers to Malaysia, where the conditions sound hardly better than inside North Korea itself.

Malaysia has defended the use of North Korean labourers in its mining industry, saying they are particularly good workers because of their dedication, strength and bravery.

After a North Korean was among those killed in a mine explosion at the weekend, Malaysia’s deputy home minister, Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, told reporters that the men had been working legally under a special agreement between Pyongyang and authorities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

“When it comes to industries such as coal mines, the jobs are very dangerous and tough,” Wan Junaidi said. “No local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs — that is why [we] need foreign workers. In the coal-mining sector, only Britain, China and North Korea have highly-skilled workers.” [….]

The minister’s comments come just two days after three men — Tun Tun Win, 36, from Burma; Kardianto, 38, from Indonesia; and Pang Chung-hyok, 29, from North Korea — were killed after a blast ripped through the mine on Saturday morning. Another 29 men were injured, seven of them from North Korea. Forty-nine of the 119 foreign workers at the Sarawak mine were North Koreans. [The Guardian]

The report quotes “defectors’ groups” as saying there may be as many as 65,000 North Koreans working abroad now. The usual suspicions arise that the workers in Malaysia are receiving anywhere from zero to 15% of their salaries, as at the Kaesong Industrial Park, the Siberian logging camps, and Qatar’s new World Cup construction sites.

Collectively, mineral products constitute North Korea’s largest legal exports. The trend bears watching, not only because of its potential effects on North Korea’s economy and society, but also because the regime may feel tempted to substitute falling mineral exports with illicit exports, or by exporting more food.

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