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North Korean loggers sail logs down river for meager rations

Fishermen on a Commercial Log Raft (David Falconer/Flickr)
August 11, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Food shortages in North Korea are forcing once-privileged laborers in the physically demanding logging industry to get by on meager rations of only corn and rice.

In better economic times, loggers enjoyed food rations that included meat and oil, much better than those of other occupations, because of all the hard work they were doing.

Groups of emaciated loggers rowing timber down the river are a common sight, according to an RFA Korean Service reporter who visited the Chinese side of the Yalu River border with North Korea.

The loggers looked very thin and weak and appeared to not have been eating properly.

Trips down the Yalu and Tumen rivers can last weeks or even months. Sources in the region say when one logger drops from exhaustion and hunger, another will take his place rowing, but sometimes the teams of loggers fail to reach their destination because none in the group has any strength left.

One source explained to RFA how hard the loggers must work to continue their journey down the river.

“They use straw bags to [catch the current] to make the log rafts [flow quickly downstream]. They sail well if the current is strong,” said the source.

“But when the rafts get caught on a rock, they have to cut that part of the raft off with an ax. It’s very tiring work,” the source said.

The source also said the loggers drink heavily when the sailing is smooth.

Timber for China

These days, the rafts most often travel from far upstream in Yanggang province to Manpo city in neighboring Chagang province. From there they are distributed over land to construction sites and lumber processing facilities. Recently, however, a lumber-for-rubber exchange with Chinese companies has developed.

The Yalu River Tire Factory is located in the Manpo area. Local sources say the factory produces tires in a market-oriented manner under the specific instructions of Kim Jong Un “to develop and produce tires unconditionally with the spirit of self-reliance.”

“For several years the Yalu River Tire Factory has been getting all its rubber from China through a trading company,” said another source to RFA’s reporter on the Chinese side of the Yalu.

“They even have the army saw the logs at a forestry company in Yanggang before handing them over to China,” the source said.

Once the logs are purchased by the trading company, they hire a logger to transport them on the river. Sources say this method is more cost effective, as vehicles consume fuel.

“The rich logging business owners will sign a contract with a logger promising to give rice to the logger’s family and pay daily wages separately. Experienced loggers who have been working in the field for a long time are in pretty high demand,” said the source.

The source had nothing but criticism for the scheme, finding it ironic that the tire company needs to go through such an elaborate process to transport logs to China just to get the rubber they need.

“Somehow they call that self-reliance,” the source said.

“Those guys will sail anywhere because the company is providing food for their families. They are desperate laborers hired to deliver the logs,” said the source.

“The logs are exported or smuggled to China through the Hyesan customs office in Yanggang province. Korean logs are cheap and high-quality, so China keeps asking for them,” said the source.

“It s not because China doesn’t have logs, it’s because Chinese logs are so expensive. Since we’re facing economic paralysis, we make tires by selling logs and we buy fuel by selling logs. During the North Korean famine, [North Korean authorities] had a contract with [China] to give a certain number of logs per defector that they sent back to North Korea. A person’s life is worth a log,” the source said.

Meanwhile, in spite of the intense labor, the loggers barely manage to live with three meals a day on corn and rice.