North Korea ceases operation of some munitions factories

Satellite imagery of Chongjin Munitions Factory (No. 129)
Satellite imagery of Chongjin Munitions Factory (No. 129). Image: Google Earth

In a highly unusual development, some munitions factories in North Korea have stopped operating, according to sources inside the country.

Some local sources surmise that the factories were shut down because the regime wishes to show sincerity towards denuclearization while negotiating with the United States.

“Some of the munitions factories under the Second Economic Committee have ceased operation. Since the beginning of the year, smaller munitions factories began shutting down and recently even the big factories have been shut down,” a source in Pyongyang told Daily NK.

He added that smaller factories stopped operating before the second DPRK-US summit in Hanoi and from April, even the bigger ones began closing their doors.

The Second Economic Committee is operated by the Party Central Committee’s Department of Machinery Industry and it oversees all activities from the planning, production, sales and distribution of conventional military weapons including mortars, rifles, anti-aircraft guns and ammunition. The Second Economic Committee’s headquarters are located in South Pyongan and it has 8 branches and an estimated 190 munitions factories under its wing, wielding considerable economic influence. For instance, its 2.8 Machinery Factory in Ryanggang Province, which produces machine guns and mortars, employs 12,000 people.

The North Korean authorities have always sought to guarantee the normal operation of its munitions factories even when non-military factories have had to cease operating. Coal mining enterprises that previously received constant electricity have also had to reduce their working hours due to continued economic hardship and power shortages.

“Some say that the shut down was inevitable because the necessary materials for the munitions factories cannot be imported due to sanctions and others say that the authorities do not want to upset the United States while the negotiations on denuclearization are going on,” the source said.

North Korean defectors who are familiar with North Korea’s internal affairs have noted that the shutdown of any munitions factories is very unusual.

“Munitions factories were shut down only briefly during the Arduous March in the mid-90s when they really did not have adequate electricity or materials, but they almost never stop operating them even in harsh circumstances,” said Seo Jae Pyong of the Association of the North Korean Defectors.

“It is true that North Korea is having a tough time importing metals because of the sanctions. I think that the shutdown we are seeing is a temporary production stoppage due to a shortage of materials.”

The state-run Rodong Sinmun reported in May that Kim Jong Un observed a strike drill involving large-caliber, long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons on the coast of the East Sea.
The state-run Rodong Sinmun reported in May that Kim Jong Un observed a strike drill involving large-caliber, long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons on the coast of the East Sea.

Another North Korean defector, who was previously a high-ranking official, told Daily NK on condition of anonymity that during this year’s New Year’s speech “Kim Jong Un said that material resources should be acquired for economic construction in a cost-effective way.”

“It is possible that, since nuclear armament has been achieved, they can increase the production of conventional weapons and send more manpower and resources that were designated for the military economy into the civilian sector,” he explained.

During this year’s new year’s speech, Kim Jong Un indeed said, “The manpower and material resources of the country should be directed at economic construction in a cost-effective way. [The state] should adjust the structures and system of work to raise the efficiency of economic development and help enterprises smoothly conduct their business activities.”

On the other hand, munitions factory workers, who were considered to have stable jobs in North Korea, have been taken by surprise as the munitions factories ceased operations one by one.

“Factory workers have become unemployed as the munitions factories stopped operating. The smaller factories are completely cut off from the rations and the bigger ones only hand out 700~800 grams (g) of corn and rice mixed in a 7:3 ratio once a month, but that could be cut off at any time,” a separate source in Pyongyang said.

“Some of the factory workers are volunteering to go to the countryside. Only a portion of them are at least receiving a small amount of rations, but most are not receiving anything. The military operates at the national level, so there is not much the workers can do about it.”

*Translated by Yongmin Lee