Structural restoration stalled at mining complex refinery in North Korea

Interior of Tanchon Refinery in 2016. Image: DPRK Today

Reinforcement work on a building within the Tanchon Refinery in South Hamgyong Province following structural integrity concerns has stalled due to insufficient labor and materials required to complete the job.

The Tanchon Refinery was established in January 1984 (with operations starting in 1985) under the direction of Kim Il Sung to serve the Kumdok Mining Complex, described by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) as “a leading non-ferrous minerals producer in the DPRK.” The refinery built additional shafts to expand its operations in the 2000s.

“The refinery is over 30 years old, so there were tons of leaks and cracks and the authorities concluded that it was dangerous. But they only managed some temporary patch ups which ended up exacerbating the problem. Eventually the construction authorities demanded that the building be repaired to prevent a major accident from occurring,” a source in South Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on December 21.

“The building itself is a problem but there’s also severe erosion that has arisen from the dumping of wastewater directly into the waterways around the facility, which is eventually carried out into the East Sea.”

According to a separate source in South Hamgyong Province, the government decided to renovate the dilapidated facility two years ago, but the overlap with the Ryomyong Street project in Pyongyang and budgetary strains delayed the restoration until September this year.

Seo Jae Pyong of the Association of North Korean Defectors said that most of the refinery’s buildings are only three or four stories high, which was tall for North Korean standards at the time of construction and that measures are sorely needed to address the subsequent issues.

According to the sources, however, doubts remain as to whether the restoration will move forward as planned considering labor demands for other large-scale projects and a rise in the number of residents actively avoiding mobilization.

“Not to mention all the required materials and technical skills needed to carry out the project properly,” said an additional source in the region, who noted the difficulty international sanctions presented in procuring the necessary equipment and resources.

“It’s winter now, so it’s really cold and the time commitment to work on the project is at least six months. It won’t be easy to get enough people in these conditions,” the source concluded.