Exclusive: North Korean trains derailed
Two oil tankers derailed between North Korea’s Oedaejin and Yongkwang-gun in late March, according to multiple sources. A significant spillage of diesel oil was also reported by witnesses.
A shortage of high-tensile steel, vital for both train and track stability, appears to have contributed to the derailment. New Focus’ correspondent in Chongjin told us, “Since the enforcement of the latest sanctions, imports of train parts from China have stopped. We depend on imports for high-tensile steel but since there is no supply, domestic components are used instead.”
Screw-spikes made of high-tensile steel are crucial to North Korea’s train operations, as they fulfill the key function of anchoring the engine on the train, as well as anchoring the tracks. The screw-spikes are made of high-tensile steel to withstand the severe vibrations when the train runs on the track. If ordinary steel is used, they do not withstand the vibrations and also easily break.
The correspondent added, “Especially on uphill or downhill gradients, the trains cannot run properly like this.”
Until 2015, North Korean refugee Choe Ji-hwan was a specialist mechanical engineer for the locomotives division of North Korea’s Hyesan Railways Bureau, the state department responsible for the operation of trains in the northern area. While the most recent derailment could be attributed to a recent choke in imports of high-tensile steel, Choe pointed to longer-running domestic issues as contributing to the problem of train maintenance.
Choe told New Focus, “When you look under a locomotive, there are steel components weighing around 5 kg. In North Korean, we call these “jirenda” [note: related to English term ‘cylinder’]. People waited for opportunities to steal parts from the jirenda because if they smuggle these into China, they can make a tidy sum.”
He explained to us that with the recent blockage of export-import routes, jirenda now fetch even higher prices than last year. He said, “The most costly part of locomotive repairs for us was the replacement of components for jirenda. Because they were so prone to theft, we assigned people to a rotating guard whenever a locomotive was not moving.”
Choe explained that on several occasions they were told by managers that sanctions stopped replacement parts from being imported. He said, “We often had to improvise using old parts. But if you operate a locomotive using parts that are not up to standard, the trains don’t run smoothly. If trains continue to operate under such circumstances, accidents on a larger scale become inevitable. Yet when new parts were obtained and fitted, we ran the risk of people stealing them. You can say that ordinary North Koreans contribute to rail accidents by stealing train parts.”
Other sources in situ described increasing concern over train accidents in the northern region since the announcement of new sanctions. One North Korean resident of Chongjin told New Focus, “Chongjin is a hub for the transportation of goods, freight trains carrying coal or ore frequently pass by. Since the announcement of the sanctions, there have already been several train incidents in the remit of the Chongjin Railway Bureau. There was one case where a derailment damaged residential structures. Anxiety among residents near these areas still run high.”
Apart from questions of DPRK state policy in terms of resource allocation and priorities or their repercussions on domestic and international responses, the timing of events appear also to affect an increased potential for accidents. A second Chongjin resident told us, “Much of the cargo being transported by train is cement or coal required for state construction projects. There are always more railway accidents in the run-up to the key Korean Workers’ Party events.”
He continued, “Whenever a construction command is issued by Central Party, cadres of the Railway Bureau rush deliveries even though they know the condition of the equipment is not sufficient to meet the targets. As new construction orders are issued, accidents are bound to happen.”