Many Chagang Province residents are buying water from a bottled water plant in Kanggye after an incident involving water pollution at Lake Rangrim in the province’s Rangrim Mountains, Daily NK has learned. 

“Even though the price of five liters of water has gone up from KPW 700 to KPW 1,200, there are still a lot of people buying water bottled at the plant,” a Chagang Province-based source told Daily NK on May 13. “There are even people who buy water from the plant to rinse vegetables and noodles.” 

The price of bottled water is high compared to the average monthly wage of North Korean workers (KPW 1,800 – 2,200), but concern over contaminated tap water means that many people prefer to buy bottled water regardless of the price. 

DEADLY BY-PRODUCTS

Lake Rangrim’s pollution problem came to light after a North Korean who was working at a gold mine in Rangrim County found out that the by-products of the gold extraction process, including toxic materials such as mercury and cyanide, were being disposed of in the lake. 

Rangrim County has long been known for having large deposits of gold underground. When a large vein of gold was discovered in the area last year, the donju (North Korea’s wealthy entrepreneurial class) and state-run companies focused on foreign currency-earning schemes competed with each other to mine the gold. 

Cyanide, mercury and other toxic substances were used to refine the gold extracted from the mine and they found their way into nearby Lake Rangrim, the source told Daily NK. 

A satellite picture showing Lake Rangrim. / Image: Google Earth

“Lake Rangrim is located in a high-altitude area of Chagang Province and various rivers flow from the lake into other areas of the province,” the source said. “If the lake is contaminated then it was obvious that rivers connected to it will be contaminated as well.” 

People in the province became concerned when they heard about how the by-products from the gold refining process were being handled. Many locals used water from the rivers for drinking and cooking. 

Rumors had long been circulating in Chagang Province of high birth defection rates and that the province’s lifespan is shorter than the national average. Given that the province hosts a large number of munitions factories, locals never seriously considered water quality as the reason for these issues. But when news of toxic substances entering Lake Rangrim spread through the area, people started to suspect that the cause of these health problems was related to the water. 

Officials from the Rangrim County People’s Committee and engineers were ultimately ordered by Rangrim County party officials to test the water quality in the lake. The results made it clear that the water was not suitable for drinking and that the water would remain harmful to the human body as it flowed down rivers originating at the lake. 

In mid-March last year, the chairman of the Rangrim County Party Committee wrote a “proposal” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un describing the severe water quality problems affecting Lake Rangrim, expert analysis linking poor water quality with birth defects, and suggested measures to take in the future. 

Kim approved the proposal around two weeks later in early April and a massive investigation was launched into the agencies and officials involved in causing the water pollution. 

An investigation team made up of officials from the Ministry of State Security, Military Security Command, the State Academy of Sciences, and the Chagang Province Party Committee were tasked with identifying those responsible. They later submitted a report with their findings to the Central Committee’s Organization and Guidance Department. 

Owners of gold mines connected with the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of People’s Safety, and foreign currency-earning companies under the aegis of the military were found to have been complicit in causing the water pollution. 

The directors of foreign currency-earning companies along with high-level party officials were sent to correctional facilities or kicked out of the party for “the crime of irresponsibly organizing the gold smelting process and recklessly damaging the lives and property of the nation and its people.”

The head of the Chagang Province Party Committee issued an apology in April last year at a closed-door meeting attended by officials as low down the bureaucratic hierarchy as the leaders of inminban (considered North Korea’s lowest administrative unit). He reportedly told them of Kim Jong Un’s “expression of concern” about birth defects in the province. 

THE FUTURE: BOTTLED WATER

After this incident, three septic tanks were installed at Lake Rangrim to prevent water pollution, but residents are still reluctant to use tap water, Daily NK’s source in the province said. 

“People who have been boiling water to consume or using antiseptics to purify the water say it’s very fortunate that the Supreme Leader [Kim Jong Un] had the foresight to build the mineral water plant, otherwise residents would continue suffering from disease and die without even knowing the cause,” he noted. 

In fact, after Kim Jong Un inspected the Ryongaksan Spring Water Factory in September 2016, he ordered that bottled water plants should be built at each province, city and county to benefit the people. In recent years, bottled water plants have been built all over North Korea, including in Chagang Province. 

North Korean media reported that a ceremony celebrating the construction of the Kanggye Bottled Water Plant was held on Dec. 25 last year, while plants in other areas, including North Hwanghae Province (Dec. 6), Pyongyang (May 19), Kangwon Province (Apr. 15), and South Hamgyong Province (Apr. 5), were also completed last year.

News of the completion of yet another bottled water plant – this time in Nampo’s Ryonggang County – was reported by North Korean state media this past January.

*Translated by Gabriela Bernal

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

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Ha Yoon Ah is one of Daily NK's full-time journalists. Please direct any questions about her articles to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.