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Coal miners mobilized ‘like slaves’ in North Korea’s 80-day battle

Longyearbyen Coal Mine (Smudge 9000/WikiCommons)
January 01, 2021

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

Citizens in North Korea who were recently mobilized for labor in coal mines told RFA Monday that for the past 80 days the government has exploited them “like slaves,” sending malnourished and untrained men into pits with only hand tools.

They have been forced to toil away digging for coal in spent mines to meet impossible production quotas, all while being underfed, as part of an “80-day battle,” that started Oct. 10 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the 1945 foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party and ends Tuesday.

Earlier this month, sources told RFA that in some parts of the country there was no work to do during the 80-day battle, so people were mobilized to sit around and do nothing while authorities nagged them to contribute cash to the campaign.

Such was not the case for the coal miners in South Pyongan province in the country’s central region.

“This 80-day battle, which makes me angry just thinking about it, will finally end tomorrow,” a miner at the Kaechon Colliery, 47 miles north of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA Monday.

“I spent the whole 80 days digging for coal in the underground mine that was more like a badger’s hole, and I almost died,” the source said.

The battle instructions to the coal mine were little more than a vague “carry out the coal production plan unconditionally,” according to the source.

“They didn’t even supply us with any mining equipment or explosives, which are absolutely necessary to mine coal. So we couldn’t even set up a new tunnel. Instead, we were forced to dig up the coal in the existing mines with only pickaxes and shovels,” the source said.

“What we were doing thousands of feet underground was no different than what slaves did in feudal times,” the source said.

The source said that many of the miners were undernourished, yet they still managed to crawl deep into the mines to pick away at what little bits of coal were missed in previous extractions.

“After two or three rounds of mining in the same hole, there is no more coal. Besides, we don’t’ have proper equipment. We cut steel drums to make tools and dig for coal with shovels and pickaxes. We spent the whole 80-day battle digging for coal, an existence more pathetic than when we were under Japanese rule,” the source said.

The 1910-1945 Japanese colonial era featured Tokyo’s forced mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Koreans to mine coal and do other hard labor to support Japan’s war effort. Some 60,000 Koreans died from exhaustion or poor working conditions between 1939 and 1945, according to estimates by U.S. historians.

Though the source did not speak of deaths in the Kaechon mine, he described the lack of food, equipment and electricity as a miserable experience.

“In the coal mine, there is a railway to transport the excavated coal out of the mine, but with no electricity, the miners must push or pull the carts themselves. They spend the whole day swinging a pickaxe then they have to load up the carts and they can only go home after struggling to move the heavy carts out from the depths of the mine,” the source said.

Another miner in the nearby Anju Colliery told RFA that a lack of explosives meant that workers would be unable to get to areas where the richest coal deposits are.

“Although there are a lot of bituminous coal and anthracite deposits in Kaechon and Anju and other areas of South Pyongan province, coal production is slow because we can’t dig new tunnels. Explosives are essential but have been mostly imported from China,” said the second source.

“But ever since cross-border trade was shut down due to the coronavirus crisis, we have not been able to import any explosives,” the second source said.

North Korea and China closed the border and suspended all trade in January at the start of the pandemic. The move has resulted in shortages and has decimated local economies as industries are unable to operate for lack of raw materials.

The second source said that the mines in South Pyongan province turned to domestic alternatives that were lower quality and therefore less useful.

“Domestic explosives cannot be used for blasting in coal mines because they contain too little nitrogen and ammonia and have a small explosion range,” the second source said.

“So, the colliery was not able to create a new tunnel during the 80-day battle… They forced the coal miners to dig for coal with pickaxes and shovels in dangerous mines, even the ones that should be closed. So miners are resentful and angry.”

North Korean state media reported that during a review of the 80-day battle held during a meeting of the party congress, the coalmines reported creating new blasting methods to meet their battle quotas. Local sources however told RFA that most of the mines were unable to produce coal during the 80-day period.