The continued closure of the Sino-North Korean border has led to a near shutdown of Musan Mine, North Korea’s largest iron mine, Daily NK has learned. 

“The Musan Mine is operated at less than 50% of capacity,” a North Hamgyong Province-based source told Daily NK on Wednesday. “Only two of the five mining areas in the complex are operating at full capacity. The shutdown of the border with China has led to slowdowns in drilling and ‘ore dressing’ [mechanically separating grains of ore minerals from gangue minerals – mineral processing].” 

North Korea closed its border to China at the end of January to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The move reportedly ended all smuggling operations along the border and also impacted operations at the Musan Mine, which is located in North Hamgyong Province. 

North Korea has been banned from exporting minerals since the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2397 in 2017. The regime, however, has continued to earn large amounts of foreign currency from the sale of iron ore produced in Musan Mine. Daily NK reported in late 2018 [in Korean] that iron ore from Musan Mine was being smuggled to China’s Sanhe region after passing through Hoeryeong. 

North Korea and China reportedly ended their joint production of iron ore at the mine following the coronavirus outbreak. Musan Mine now only produces iron ore for domestic consumption, Daily NK sources said. 


Rodong Sinmun reported recently that Musan Mine blasted through 400,000 tons of earth on Jan. 2 at Cholsan Peak. Daily NK sources reported that this at expanding production have largely failed because of the lack of equipment and logistics issues. 

The Rodong Sinmun claimed that the blasting had been successful and that expansion of production would enable the complex to produce more iron ore. The newspaper also stated that all necessary equipment was acquired and prepared “without issue” and transported to the mine “on time.” 

musan mine
In this undated photo taken in China, Musan Mine can be seen across the Tumen River. Image: Daily NK

Daily NK sources have reported, however, that despite the state media’s claims, North Korea largely failed on both acquiring and transporting new equipment to the mine. 

“There was great fanfare surrounding the blasting at Cholsan Peak, but the equipment they used was outdated and they’ve largely failed to conduct proper mineral processing,” one source said. “They also failed to acquire enough trucks to transport the equipment around.” 

Ultimately, North Korea may have a lot of iron ore deposits but miners are unable to properly extract or process them, he added. 


Wages of workers at the mine have also reportedly suffered with the sharp decline in production.

“Nothing is being produced so it’s not wrong to say that mine workers are just not being paid,” the source said. “The mine’s leadership earns about KPW 12,000 a month, while ordinary mine workers earn, at minimum, KPW 3,500 a month.”  

Mine workers have started to make “daily necessities” at home to sell from home or at local markets to earn money, the source added. 

Despite the lack of wages, the mine’s workers are reportedly being instructed to come to work everyday. Musan Mine has over 20,000 employees and telling all of them to stop coming to work would naturally impact the complex’s overall operations. But Daily NK sources also noted that mine managers would face reprimands if their workers do not show up for work. 

Following the Workers’ Party of Korea’s year-end plenary meeting in December, North Korea’s leadership reportedly ordered Musan Mine to send “even more good-quality iron ore” to the Kimchaek Steelworks and the Songjin Refinery to ensure they increase their refining production by over 120%.  

Many of the mine’s workers, however, have reportedly scoffed at the order. 

“Musan Mine is basically in ruins now, especially when you compare it with what it used to be,” one source said. 

“It will be impossible for the refineries to produce more than they did last year,” he added. 

*Translated by Violet Kim

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