Musan Mine on the verge of total shutdown, sources say

Village near Musan Mine. Image: Daily NK file photo

Musan Mine in North Hamgyong Province is North Korea’s largest iron ore production site. As mineral exports have fallen in the wake of international sanctions, the mine has faced difficulties and local residents are experiencing extraordinary difficulties as a result, report sources in the country.

“The mine shut down in July and rations stopped at the same time, too,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source on October 30. “Musan has been designated as the most difficult place to live in the province and the authorities have even ordered residents from other areas to help the people there.”

“The mine is shut down right now and rations are not being provided,” a separate source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK. “People are in such dire straits that there are many who are wandering around, separated from their families. They’re saying it’s like the Arduous March (widespread famine of the 1990s) all over again.”

Both sources reported that the Musan area is “full of orphaned children” as parents abandon them by the roadside in desperation. The provincial Workers’ Party of Korea office has handed down an order to place all of these children in an orphanage located in Ranam District, Chongjin City.

The effects of the Musan Mine shutdown are being felt in China as well. Some Chinese steel factories have been unable to continue operations due to the lack of iron ore from the mine.

“[These steelworks] imported iron ore from North Korea, but there are now more and more ceasing operations due to stagnation in the real estate market and international sanctions,” a China-based source reported.

“The Chinese would trade rice, corn and oil in return for North Korean iron ore. These items were given to the workers in lieu of wages. But now that everything has stopped, people are in such difficult times that they are reminded of the famine in the 90s.”

A mound of collected iron ore sits near a water source in the area near the Musan Mine (yellow circle) to be processed. Discarded rocks and soil separated from the iron ore sit off to the side (red circle). Image taken in the fall of 2017. Image: Daily NK file photo

Another source close to North Korean affairs in China said, however, that “blackened water still comes out of the mine,” suggesting that the Musan Mine is still operating to some extent.

After mining the ore, it is typically cleaned with water to remove impurities from its surface. This process leads to black runoff that flows out of the mine.

However, some sources say that entrepreneurs frequently siphon off the iron ore under the silent acceptance of the authorities and wash the material themselves before selling it. Daily NK obtained a photo of this occurring in a town near the mine last winter. As a result, the official operational status of the mine cannot be determined by the runoff alone.

A South Korean government official confirmed to reporters that rations for workers at the mine have been stopped for the past three months and that “it appears production has almost completely ceased.”

“There were only three areas of the mine that were operational at the time out of a total of ten areas,” a North Korean defector who worked at the mine until late last year told Daily NK. “The authorities only gave rations out once every two months so the number of workers who came to work was slowly decreasing.”

Musan Mine was once called North Korea’s “jewel” and generated some US $100 million in earnings each year. Chronic electricity blackouts, droughts and floods, together with international sanctions blocking the export of minerals have significantly reduced the mine’s operations.