This article is part two of a series written by Daily NK journalist Kim Jeong Hyun entitled “North Korea’s Secret Stories.”
At approximately 8:30 PM on Nov. 29, 1991, Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) began airing a movie entitled “In a Coastal City.” But then, houses began to shake following the sound of an explosion in Kanggye, the provincial capital of Jagang Province. Shells from the blast flew everywhere and people were screaming.
According to a Daily NK source in Jagang Province, an underground explosion took place at one of North Korea’s major munitions factories. Scraps of ammunition from the bunker penetrated nearby houses. The boom and aftershocks made some question whether it was the start of a war.
The explosion caused a massive mobilization of nearby residents as everyone scrambled to get as far away as possible. Despite the freezing weather, residents ran for safety wearing just the clothes on their backs. The falling debris caused others to fall to the ground.
“Even if we would have had a nationwide evacuation drill, the mobilization of residents wouldn’t have been this fast,” the source in Jangang Province said.
“At that time, there were two directions where people were fleeing, and almost everyone who ran in the direction of the city died,” the source said. “The shell fragments were concentrated there, and they [the authorities] didn’t let anyone know, so, like that, another disaster happened.”
The epicenter of the incident, the No. 26 Factory, otherwise known as the Kanggye Tractor Factory, produces and stores bombs for military aircraft, artillery shells and warheads.
The factory is considerably larger than what it appears to be on the outside. The main gate and rear gate of the factory are located in the Kanggye districts of Bukmun, Nammun, Namchon, and Hyangro – while the underground bunker is a three-story structure filled with munitions supplies and gunpowder.
The body searches at the entrances to these underground bunkers are time-consuming. Typically, guards must meticulously search for lighters, matches, or anything else that could cause a fire.
The exact cause of this accident has yet to be determined. North Korean authorities said the incident was the work of spies sent by the “South Korean puppet regime of the US.” A week later, however, they changed their story and blamed the incident on workers who violated the “weapons ban” order, according to Daily NK sources.
The day after the accident, a vehicle with speakers urged people to leave their confines and clean up the mess from the explosion in their neighborhoods.
According to Daily NK sources, there was so much chaos near the explosion site that many people don’t remember seeing the speaker-clad vehicle. Some believe that the North Korean authorities should have used radio or some other means of communication to warn people to flee the area.
The official death toll was never officially announced by North Korean authorities. According to some locals, as many as 6,000 people died, including pregnant women.
Victims also included mine workers who were trapped underground. At the time of the incident, authorities reportedly blocked all exits leading above ground to prevent an even bigger explosion.
Locals have also complained that current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shown little concern towards the victims of the incident. Despite making some consoling remarks at the site of the incident last year, he didn’t make any mention of compensation. Instead, he is said to have stressed the “preparation for [dealing with] accidents” and the “loss of strategic goods.”
The indifference towards the victims shown by North Korea’s leadership has left many Kanggye residents angry. To them, the human beings who lost their lives were much more precious than the “strategic equipment” that was lost that day. Even though the explosion happened 30 years ago, the painful memories remain deeply rooted in the hearts of the locals.
*Translated by Gabriela Bernal and edited by Sabrine Donohoe