North Korea is conducting nationwide river redevelopment efforts to prevent floods. A source in the country said that the authorities have mobilized every available agency to excavate river bottoms. However, in areas where the availability of equipment is insufficient to do the job, human labor is being used instead. 

“During the Eighth Party Congress held in January, ‘managing the mountains and waters’ was set as one of the country’s key projects,” a source told Daily NK during an Apr. 29 phone call. “It was decided during the congress that helping areas that had suffered damage from floods and typhoons in 2020 recover and reinforce [flood prevention infrastructure] needs to be prioritized above everything else.”

The source said that the policy decision made during the Eighth Party Congress is essentially to “protect the land and property of the nation and its people by reducing the impact of natural disasters on agricultural production and increasing grain production.” 

The source claimed that river redevelopment efforts would continue throughout the country in stages as part of a five-year plan.

“The Cabinet’s Ministry of Land and Environment Protection will take charge of the administrative elements of this project,” the source said. “Provincial, municipal and county-level people’s committee departments responsible for managing government land will carry out river redevelopment efforts at a local scale.” 

“Lower-level organizations include offices and units responsible for repairing and maintaining roads and facilities,” the source said. “The relevant agencies and businesses in areas with rivers, dams, reservoirs, lakes, waterfronts, and valleys will be responsible for carrying the project out.”

In addition to state-managed roads, embankments, lakes, rivers, seashores, and seawalls all have a fixed group of factories, agencies, and inminban responsible for their maintenance. If a particular agency’s region becomes a target for redevelopment, that agency is obligated to participate in the redevelopment efforts. 

Taedong River in North Korea
The Taedong River in Pyongyang / Image: Uriminzokkiri

“The authorities want to expand the riverbeds and make the rivers deeper by removing sand, dirt, and gravel that got carried into the water,” the source said. “They are also reinforcing the rivers [against possible floods] by building stone embankments along the rivers [that will prevent rivers from overflowing into the surrounding land].”

“[The authorities] are carrying out construction projects to make the angle of riverbanks more gradual than the sharp drop-offs that exist now,” the source explained. “That way, even if the river overflows, the gradual angle of the riverbank will prevent potential issues with the stone flood walls…In the past, we would just put gravel and small rocks in between the larger stones, but now we are using cement mortar to carry out a plan to reinforce the seal between the stones.” 

When the sides of a river are at a steep angle, there is only a short time between the moment that rainwater flows over the top of the rainwater basin and the moment that the water spills into the surrounding land. This makes it difficult to issue flood warnings that will give people living in the floodplains enough time to evacuate. North Korea is constructing floodwalls and adjusting the angle of the riverbanks to give local authorities and residents more time to clear the area and prevent major floods from occurring in the first place.

However, the source claims that the North Korean authorities are not only conducting river and floodwall construction projects. The government is also overseeing construction projects to maintain, reinforce, renovate, and reconstruct roads and bridges all over the country. 

“The businesses, factories, and organizations in charge of the construction are also fully liable for the costs of diesel oil needed to run excavators, bulldozers, and trucks used for the project,” the source said. “The many units that can’t afford enough diesel to fuel the machines are sending people to do the work of digging up the dirt, gravel, and sand in the riverbanks by hand. The workers then have to carry out the sacks of gravel in sacks on their backs.” 

“Powerful organizations can use mechanization to carry out their construction projects, but they force the mobilized workers to cover half of the costs of diesel fuel,” the source said. “Less well-equipped work units either have to use the ‘ant method’ or ask workers to pay for five kilograms of diesel.”

The “ant method” is a method of construction and production used in North Korea based on the ‘sea of people’ battle strategy where production and construction are carried out without the use of any technology or equipment. A prominent example of this was when 50,000 soldiers and labor brigade members constructed the Pyongyang-Nampo highway in 2000.  

This means that the authorities ordered ordinary citizens to take responsibility for the procurement of materials needed for large-scale national construction projects. Those who were unable to provide funds or materials for the projects had to contribute their labor instead. For this reason, some view North Korea’s use of forcibly mobilized residents for construction projects as modern slavery. 

“Most people are contributing [to the projects] with diesel oil,” the source said. “People who offer three times the amount required won’t have to participate in the mobilization.”

*Translated by S & J

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