North Korea has begun a crackdown on illegal gold mining after three people died last month when an abandoned mine collapsed, sources in the country told RFA.
Sneaking into spent mines to find leftover ore is dangerous and illegal, but with the North Korean economy struggling under the weight of coronavirus-related border closures, more and more are willing to take the risk.
“At the end of January, residents secretly went to mine gold in an old abandoned mine in Sonchon county, but a tunnel collapsed, and three people died,” a source in North Pyongan province, in the country’s northwest told RFA’s Korean Service Monday.
“Increasing numbers of people are sneaking into the gold mines that have stopped operating to dig for the gold illegally. The authorities are now coming up with countermeasures,” said the source, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source said the Central Committee ordered judicial organizations to crack down on illegal mining, so the police and the prosecution have organized joint inspection teams. According to an investigation, the people who died in January’s accident had been from other regions of the country and traveled to North Pyongan to dig for gold.
“These mines have been abandoned or shut down for a long time. Since there are no safety measures at all, there is a constant risk of not knowing when the tunnel will collapse. We have no way of knowing when an accident will happen,” the source said.
“A few of these illegal miners are former professional grave robbers. They are able to dig up a large amount of gold ore and smelt it manually, then sell it as pure gold. But most of these people have no experience as miners. They recklessly dig away because they are hungry and want to use the gold to buy food, and then accidents occur.”
The source said after receiving reports of abandoned mine accidents, the Central Committee ordered a strict crackdown and sent notice that gold mines, including the abandoned ones, are important national facilities.
“Collecting gold illegally is therefore an anti-party and anti-state act,” the source said.
Another source, in nearby South Pyongan province, confirmed to RFA that there was an illegal mining boom there as well.
“It’s very unsafe, but these are people whose livelihoods are becoming more difficult day by day,” said the second source, who requested anonymity for safety reasons.
“Since illegal mining is on the upswing, more and more merchants are visiting the old mines to buy gold on site. They are able to buy it at a low price from the illegal miners, and they can sell it for much higher elsewhere. They move the gold in their vehicles, so there are more security checks on the major roads these days,” said the second source.
In addition to the unorganized groups of amateurs who mine illegally, local military units have received approval to get in on the action in South Pyongan, according to the second source.
“Soldiers, however, have no mining experience, so the same types of accidents happen to them. These innocent soldiers are victims,” the second source said.
“In mid-January, seven or eight soldiers working in a gold mine in Hoechang county were buried alive after the tunnel collapsed. The military authorities kept everything secret, and they have not disclosed whether the victims were rescued or not,” the second source said.
In that incident, military leaders ignored safety and ordered the soldiers to collect as much gold ore as possible to earn foreign currency, according to the second source.
“There are many merchants in Hoechang county who buy the ore collected by the soldiers at a low price, then after smelting it into pure gold, they can sell it at a higher price,” the second source said.
“The authorities are cracking down on the people who risk their lives to try to make ends meet. They say these are anti-state criminals, but they turn a blind eye to the merchants that make excessive profits by buying the gold from the soldiers at such low prices,” said the second source.
Many of the illegal miners take the day off from their government assigned jobs at factories.
“They either claim they were sick, or they bribe officials so they can do 8.3 work,” said the second source, referring to an economic policy, named for the month and day that it went into effect in 1984, which stipulates that in certain cases people can leave work on personal business if they pay a set fee to their employers.
“There will be a limit to the crackdown by the authorities because the people are suffering from severe hardship due to U.S. economic sanctions, the coronavirus, and natural disasters. They have found a way to make a living that may be illegal, but it is better than doing nothing and starving to death.”
RFA reported several incidents of gold smuggling into China last year, especially as prices broke records over the summer. In July several party officials were implicated in a failed plot to sell large quantities of gold and platinum to Chinese buyers, with the smugglers not only violating the border closure, but also dealing in a substance strictly controlled by the state.
As of Thursday evening, the price of gold stood at U.S. $1,825 per troy ounce according to Business Insider.
Reported by Myungchul Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.