Why Have the Train Engineers Gone to the Mountains?

After the 7.1 Economic Management Measure in 2002, 90% of the train engineers in North Hamkyong province were laid off, and the left 10% receive less than 3,000Won($1.5) for monthly wage.

Song Ki Chul, a former train engineer who used to belong to Huiryeong Train Unit whom the DailyNK correspondent met on September said, after the 7.1 Economic Management Measure, (monthly) wage of level 1 train engineers (entrance level) was raised from 78Won($0.039) to 1,700Won($0.85) but 90% of them have not received wage and they barely maintain their lives by farming in private farms (random personal farms on mountains) with their families.”

Train in Operation less than 10%, All the Steam Engine Trains Put Out of Service in 2004

The main reason why 90% of the train engineers cannot for the train service is lack of electricity, which shows is a proof of the electricity crisis that had been going on for the last 2 to 3 years in North Korea.

“Train Unit” is the name for the department where administration of all the train engineers and staff work in a systemized structure, which is considered a pseudo military organ. Where Song belonged to, “Huiryeong Train Unit” was a branch of General Railway Department of North Hamkyong province, and with staff members and their supporting families, there are more than 800 people (depending their lives on the unit).

Song said, “after the 1990s, train operation decreased to lower than 10% of regular times five to seven times a day in southern part of Chongjin, and two to three times a day in northern part of Chongjn. After the food distribution stopped, staff of the Huiryeong Train Unit have been forced out to mountain farms with their families as well.”.

Following is the interview with Song.

– How many times does the train operate in a day these days?

“Train operates relatively more in the southern parts of North Hamkyong province. It is mostly passenger trains in operation, sometimes they run it as many as ten times a day.

– How about the freight trains?

“Freight trains rarely pass by these days. Since there is no factory in working in North Korea, most of the freight trains carry imported coal or goods from China. Sometimes food comes in. However, they are mostly stuff the cadres bring in to make business, such as electronics, clothes (textile), and sweets.”

– Cannot they operate at least steam engine trains if they are short of electricity?

“All the steam engine trains were disposed in 2004. I heard that they were sold as waste metal to China. They cannot be operated because there is no coal.”

Train Engineers, Cultivation of Farms in the Mountains

– There must be an increase of operation for the national or traditional holidays.

“Before Kim Il Sung dies, the train operated more frequently for the New Year’s and the harvest holidays (Chuseok) but not anymore.”

– What is the wage for the train engineers?

“They increased wage by over twenty time in after the 7.1 Economic Management Measure. Entrance level is level 1, and the highest position is level. Where as before, the wage of an entrance level staff was 78Won($0.039), now it is 1700Won($0.85). Wage of level 5 staff is about 3000Won($1.5). But there are only few people who actually receive wage. Those who had operated steam engine trains or staff in the stations do not receive any wage.”

-Then how do they make living?

“There is no work for them since trains are not in operation due to lack of electricity. Supervisors check whether they came to work or not. They come to work and make compost and in the spring they are sent to mountains even their family members together. They cultivate farmlands in the mountain. They plant corns and beans. Sometimes they force business to the people who have their relatives in China, and collect money out of them saying it is “foreign current earning” of the state.

– How do you divide the food harvested from the mountain farms?

“Distribution is entirely up to the unit. They divide the food according to the number of people in the family and the number of working hours. But even after the harvest, most of people have to pay back what they have ate already (loans) so they don’t end up with much at the end.”

– Do they have to pay tax on what they harvest?

“Since there is not that much they harvest anyway, the state does not collect tax. However, in some cases they do, since the land is state owned. There is a government office called “Forestry Protection Agency.” There are not that many forest they have to protect, all they do is to collect tax. They collect tax by the size of land, but it’s not that much. There is no fixed amount of tax but every time an official visits, they pay few hundred wons to them. They do not collect that much tax because it is not individuals but state departments using the land for farming.”

– Can you live off of the mountain farms?

“Everyone has their own businesses or private farms, so they do not die. But it is difficult to eat enough to be full. In North Korea, even the railway offices are considered as military units. Even when there is no work, male staff have to go to work, so women of the family make business to make a living.”

– How much food and money do the staff members receive?

“Passenger and freight trains together, trains only pass two to three times a day, and about ten staff work on a train. About thirty people work from the unit. They do not receive money, but only food, 15kg every month. Sometimes they receive wage, sometimes not.”

“Is there law in North Korea?”

– How do you live with 15kg of food a month?

“It is impossible to make a normal life. So women make business in the farmers markets or farm in the mountain farms. Even that 15kg of food is not from the state, but is out of the food other unit members earn from their business or farms. But those who work on the train receive bribes from the people taking train for their business, so they are better off than those who do not work.”

– Isn’t it illegal?

“Is there law in North Korea these days? Of course when there are inspections, they do not let people take the train. Since there is fixed number of seats on the passenger carts, they cannot let people aboard there, but in the engine cart, there are only engineer and assistant engineer so people can sit there. They do not have to go through inspections when they are in the engine cart, so people like it better.”

– What do you have to do if you wish to become a train engineer?

“There is nobody who wishes to become a train engineer these days. Even the ones who already became one do not have work, who would want to be one?
Before, there were people who would work for the unit right after the middle school, but most of the engineers would have had graduated from the one year course of “Railway Education Training Institute.” It is a railway military training place. They recruit staff in the same way they recruit soldiers. After the one year training, the yet to be staff take the train for one year for experience. In the training institute, there are engineer department, administration department, passenger & freight car department (inspections) and railroad department. I volunteered for engineering department, so I was placed for the engineering.”

– Are you sent to work directly after the training institute?

“Yes. When you are first sent, you are level 1, one bar on the badge. Then you get two bars, three bars, four bars, and when you are to get five bars, you get a star. From the level five on, you are an independent engineer. Until level five, you are an assistant.”

– When did you get a star?

“I graduated the training institute and gained experience and enrolled the railway university. The university education is three years long. I graduated 00 Railway College. In the training institute, you are trained to become an assistant, but in the college you are trained to be an independent rain engineer. They give you a star when you gradate the college. I receive the star upon my graduation and was sent to the Huiryeong Train Unit.”

– Tell us about the administration in the railway sector.

“Because the railway sector is pseudo military organ under special direct management, so it is under the central party management system. A management department represents the military and a general department represents the province. The secretary general in the railway sector is in the same level as the secretary general of a provincial party. Level of position of the railway staff is pretty high.”

– Have you received any foreign aid?

“Not even once. In North Korea, the state never distributes foreign aid to the common people. Even when the foreign food aid comes into North Korea, they are all first sent to the national food storages. Then they are sold to the people at the farmers markets. People guess aids are coming in from South Korea, Japan, and the United States because they sometimes see grain sacks in the markets, but they can never find out through what route they come in.”

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