Eleven people—most of them women—were killed and around 30 injured in North Korea when earth they were plowing collapsed beneath them, according to a source inside the country.
The workers had been mobilized to plow at the October 18 Jonghap Farm in Yanggang province, along the border with China, on Feb. 3 as part of an annual bid by the Kim Jong Un regime to improve acidic soil for farming, an area resident told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity.
Due to low temperatures during the winter, much of the earth had been turned to ice, and the workers—from the Baek-du Youth Team, and the Baek-am Tile Works and Rural Construction Unit—had been ordered to dig until they found unfrozen soil, the source said.
However, a sinkhole had developed beneath the ice and when the workers pierced through the frozen layer of soil, the ground collapsed, burying them alive, according to the source.
A second source from Yanggang told RFA that four tractors had been deployed for four days as part of the rescue effort.
“Lots of officials, including those from the party committee and rural development committee responded to the accident, staying at the scene throughout the rescue attempt,” the source said.
“The accident resulted in 11 deaths and about 30 injuries, almost all of whom were women.”
It was unclear how the sinkhole had formed, though they are commonly found in nature when groundwater causes the dissolution of carbonate rock, such as limestone, or as a result of human activity, such as mining or when natural water-drainage patterns are altered.
The sources did not provide details about how workers sought to treat the acidic soil, which the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington says is common in the North due to “decades of over-fertilization” that have also left farmland with little organic matter.
An official in Yanggang expressed remorse for the incident, telling RFA that a similar accident had occurred in December last year involving a sinkhole collapse, though it had resulted in no casualties.
He said if additional safety measures had been implemented since the earlier accident, they might have saved the lives of the workers and avoided other damage.
The official criticized what he called “excessive demands” from the central authorities, saying that while plowing should be done after the harvest, local officials had been ordered to carry out the work during the winter each year, resulting in frequent accidents.
“[Local] officials know well how difficult the soil-plowing work is in the winter, but can’t help requiring people to do it because of a severe shortage of workers,” the source said.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Junju Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.