19th-century forges brought back for North Korea’s coal mines

Coal dust piled up next to street merchants in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province in this photo taken in October 2018
Coal dust piled up next to street merchants in Sunchon, South Pyongan Province in this photo taken in October 2018. Image: Daily NK

Some mines under the management of cooperative enterprises are building forges similar to those commonly found throughout the Western world in the 19th century, Daily NK sources recently reported.

A South Pyongan Province-based source reported that mines have built traditional forges in response to the central government’s order to address the lack of hammers, spanners, shovels, safety helmets and safety lights through “self-sufficiency”. These forges are not provided with any electricity and essentially reflect operations in the pre-electrical age.

Official equipment supply shops are ordinarily supposed to manage and repair equipment in the mines and produce parts and tools for use with mining equipment. However, the country’s lack of electricity, dilapidated infrastructure, and chronic shortage of materials means that these shops have been unable to operate, so traditional-style forges are being built to meet the demand instead.

Private mines and those run by the military and foreign currency-earning enterprises typically buy tools from China, but mines managed by cooperative enterprises have to find their own solutions.

“Mine Party committees have told mine managers to make what they need themselves and use any methods available to support their operations,” said the source. “Some local people’s committees provide material support to the mines, but most of this aid is unusable.”

A separate source in South Pyongan Province added that mine officials themselves have pointed out that the lack of equipment and materials has led to the fall in coal production.

“Some mines managed by the Sunchon District Coal Cooperative Enterprise have failed to receive [speed] reducer mechanisms, belts, bearings and other components to properly operate their conveyor belts, which are used to transport coal out of the coal mines,” he said.

“The lack of coal cars, compressors, rock drills, welding rods and other equipment means that the mines are unable dig to any further or operate effectively.”

“While power shortages are a major reason for the fall in coal production, the mines also lack the money to purchase or repair equipment,” he continued, citing reports from local miners. “Cooperative enterprise officials emphasize greater yields, but workers respond by asking whether the officials are just asking them to dig with their bare hands.”

The Rodong Sinmun recently cited North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s statements at the Fourth General Plenum of the Seventh Party Central Committee in April as well as at the Supreme People’s Assembly. The remarks focus on the need for the country to increase coal production and produce more components and tools through “self-sufficient” means.

The newspaper’s first-page article, entitled “Produce More Equipment and Parts for Coal Production” states, “Officials and workers at the Tokchon Mine and Equipment Factory are producing equipment, parts and tools for coal production under the banner of self-sufficiency.”

“They are creating and finding what they need and using their own strength to puncture through the difficulties they face. [The workers] have succeeded in producing a great deal of equipment and tools needed to improve mechanization of the mining process,” the article reads. “Factory officials, workers and engineers are actively working to send more equipment and parts to the mines, and taking the lead to produce more coal.”

On May 21, the Rodong Sinmun published another article entitled “Focusing Efforts on the Creation of New Mines,” which states that “workers in the coal mining industry are digging new mines under the banner of self-sufficiency.”

The piece also claimed that mines under the management of cooperative enterprises are focusing on digging new mines as part of their efforts” to breathe new life into the industry and forge ahead for greater coal production.”

The newspaper also published several other articles commenting on progress by coal mines, including “More Mechanization Means More Coal” on May 13, “More Coal to Our Thermal Power Plants” on May 11, and “The Country is Alight in Efforts to Produce More Coal for Thermal Energy” on May 2.

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