Sanctions see ruling party timelines move but its policies unmoved
In December last year, New Focus published an exclusive report on the sudden onset of rushed mobilizations for railway construction work in the Hyesan region. Samjiyon is a remote area near Mt Paekdu, and is deemed a sacred location that serves to house monuments the revolutionary accomplishments of the Kims. A project was proposed to lay 64km of track between Samjiyon with Wiyon station in Hyesan, Yangang Province as the first phase of a ‘Samjiyon track’. A June 2015 decree of the ruling party set the deadline of October 10th 2016 for completing this phase, October 10th being the day of the founding of the ruling party.
But as published in the report, an internal decree was issued in December stating that the first phase had to be completed in time for the beginning of the 7th Party Congress. This meant that the October 2016 deadline was brought forward to May 2016. Our correspondent described at the time, “Construction sites are teeming with workers. Hyesan city is really behind schedule. They lack the needed materials for flattening the earth, especially in the high altitudes and steep gradients. In order to make up for time, Hyesan residents are being mobilized before sunrise each day.”
On December 4 2015, a Hyesan-wide mass labour mobilizations order was issued for factory workers, residents of apartment blocks, women and students. This meant all North Korean citizens eligible for physical labour in the area would be called up according to their official socio-political grouping.
The distance between Hyesan city and its construction rally point is roughly 12 km. Residential monitors of each inminban (a residential unit) and apartment block woke their households up at 5 am, so that they could arrive at the site by 7.30. One could only leave the construction site after completing the allotted quota. Lunch had to be taken care of by the workers themselves. If anyone had to miss (or wanted to miss) a day of the mobilization call, the fee to be paid was 20 Chinese yuan in lieu of one day of work.
Local sources at the time said that the Hyesan mobilization call would likely remain for several months, if there was to be any hope at making the May completion deadline.
On May 19 2016, we received an update about progress on this track. “The last orders were that the track had to be completed in time for the 7th party congress. But when the new sanctions were announced, the deadline was suddenly moved to August 28 2016. In construction sites now, there is a “flattening earth battle” being waged by workers’ units. This has to be done before the rails can be secured,” a New Focus correspondent described.
The ruling party has also issued an updated decree, stating that the materials required for cement sleepers must be sourced independently by the provincial workers. For example, Yangang province is being held responsible for 12km of track between Wiyon and Pongsu, while Jagang province for the track between Pongsu and Sanyipyong. The required materials include high strength komaruka (North Korean term for imported cement) and reinforcing rods.
Meanwhile, the Pyongyang bridge-works division of the Ministry of Railways Ministry has begun production for cement sleepers assigned as a quota for North Pyongan province. Similarly, the Chongjin bridge-works division has begun production to fulfill quotas for North Hamgyong province. The other provinces have settled for wooden sleepers instead of cement sleepers, due to a shortage of cement and metal.
But even these efforts are on hold due to a shortage of tar. Tar is normally imported from China, but was among the imports that trickled to a stop – at least as far as the provinces outside of Pyongyang are concerned – since the latest sanctions were implemented.
Imports of rail too are reported to have been cancelled in the wake of the sanctions. “There is talk that people from our side have tried to approach China and Russia regarding the purchase of rail. But there has not been any confirmation of their success yet,” according to a New Focus correspondent.
We were told of increasing concerns among local residents that the authorities will soon order for the Paekmuson track to be disassembled, in order to resolve the ongoing material shortfall. The Paekmuson track currently connects Paekam county of Yangang province with Yonsa county of North Hamgyong province. Since its expansion in 2006, many ordinary North Koreans have depended on this route for their inter-provincial and grey-market trading activities.
Without the track, goods flow – and the sustaining of livelihoods – will be much more difficult for residents in the two regions. Whether or not such a disassembly decree is issued, a New Focus correspondent reported that heightened anxiety over its possibility has led locals to quite openly joke: “Today they will disassemble for their railway the track used for people’s livelihoods, tomorrow they will disassemble for their railway the people’s roofs.”
At one construction site for the track there are currently 8000 ‘speed-battle workers’, with supporting workers and KPA foot-soldiers making up a 20,000-strong manual-labor unit. The numbers were higher until the first week of May, as agricultural workers were being mobilized as seasonal ‘speed-battle workers’. Most of these have now returned to work on farms, we were told.
Although the order stands for an August 28 deadline, completion within three months is believed to be impossible unless sanctions are lifted and provincial tar and cement supplies revert to the pre-sanctions level. One of our sources serving as a local official in North Korea, when asked about the possibility of rethinking priorities in material triage and national project choices, replied that this topic was unmentionable.