Seven crushed to death in North Korea mine accident

Trucks transport iron ore from Jaeryong Mine in 2014. Image: Rodong Sinmun

Seven miners were recently killed in an incident at the Kumdok Mining Complex, North Korea’s largest site for producing non-ferrous metals. Mine authorities are placing responsibility for the incident on the miners themselves, but miners and local residents say that the primary cause was the working environment.

“Seven miners were working in the tunnels until night one day in late December and they were killed after being crushed by a cart carrying them out of the mine,” said a North Hamgyong Province-based source on January 15. “The scene of the incident was said to have been really ghastly because the body parts of the miners were all over the place.”

Kumdok Mining Complex’s Ro Un Mine, which has large deposits of zinc and is the specific location of the accident, is well-known to most North Koreans. Three years ago, the mine flooded and mining operations ceased. The North Korean authorities immediately moved to begin a “1,000-Day Battle” aimed at repairing the mine and enabling production.

The end of the battle came in late 2018, which means that miners were working hard in the tunnels as the completion of the battle neared. Within this context, the seven miners met their fate while working late at night last year.

“The mining authorities handled the collection of the bodies and returned them to their families after identification, but it is still not clear why the incident occurred,” said the source. “In other words, the question of who’s to blame has not been addressed.”

According to a separate source in North Hamgyong Province, some of the miners suspect that the signalling officer responsible for sending signals to miners to direct the movement of tunnel carts was negligent, and also that the aged ropes [attached to the carts] are likely the direct cause of the incident. They believe that the incident was not the fault of any specific person, but rather due to structural issues in the work environment.

He added that the mining authorities, however, have argued that the deaths cannot be explained and that “the signalling officer sent the wrong signal” in a blatant attempt to blame the incident on a single signalling officer.

Local residents who heard about the incident are viewing it through the same lens as the miners, believing that the mining and government authorities are responsible for the conditions that led to the accident.

“Local residents are focusing on the fact that miners are under enormous strain,” he explained. “They work from morning to midnight and have no rest time. The signalling officers may have just been dozing off at the time of the incident.”

Both sources noted that even if there was an error made in the course of exchanging signals between the miners and the signalling officer, it appears unlikely that the responsibility for the incident rests entirely on the officer’s shoulders.

“People are livid that the mining authorities are placing all the blame for the incident on the signalling officer, pointing out that he’s just the son of a poor household who has no authority but he’s being blamed for everything,” the initial source said.

Ro Un Mine has plentiful stores of ore, considered to be of excellent quality. The North Korean authorities have thus considered the mine to be an important part of the nation’s economy, but the miners themselves perceive it to be an extremely dangerous place to work. The mine is known to be accident-prone because water ingress has mired the tunnels in thick, liquid mud and miners are at risk of falling into deep holes.