More than 20 North Korean workers have died since the end of March while carrying out construction on an accident-ridden hydropower project that has claimed hundreds of lives since work began two decades ago, according to sources in the country.
They were killed in two accidents at the Baekdusan Songun Youth Power Station in Yanggang province, where workers face hazardous conditions and are kept under strict watch to prevent escape, sources said.
Nineteen workers from a special brigade from North Pyongan province died when a spillway tunnel collapsed on March 29, and four from the Nak Won Union Cooperation Regiment died and one was injured in a second collapse more recently, according to a source in the province.
“A spillway tunnel collapsed again,” the source told RFA’s Korean Service on April 26 after the latest accident, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is fortunate that not many lives were lost this time.”
The latest accident was the seventh this year related to tunnel collapses at the site, he said.
The collapses were believed to be linked to nuclear tests in recent years at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility in Yanggang’s neighboring North Hamgyong province that has caused cracks in the bedrock, he said.
Local sources have reported since last year that the nuclear tests had caused collapses that were slowing down progress on the hydropower project, which was started in 1995.
Construction work at the site is a dangerous business, with workers living in fear of accidents after more than 200 deaths at the site in the past six years, sources said.
“So many lives were lost during the ten years I worked at the Baekdusan Songun Youth Power Station,” said one worker who quit in December last year.
In the worst incident, 226 workers died in 2008 when a spillway tunnel caved in. The area was closed off and their bodies were never retrieved, he said.
A year later, 66 people died and others were injured while repairing a collapsed area in the aftermath of reported February 2009 nuclear tests, he said.
At the construction site, which is led by a youth brigade, two battalions are assigned to watch the sites day and night to prevent workers from escaping, other sources said.
The spillway tunnel areas and workers’ living quarters are fenced in by barbed wire, they said.
“There are no safety measures at the dangerous construction sites, and troops are trying to escape desperately to avoid death,” one said.
Progress on the hydroelectric project, which consists of three power stations in the upper reaches of the Sodu stream, has been slowed by repairs required to the water tunnels.
North Korean state media has lauded the project's construction as a heroic effort, praising workers for their bravery.
In one report, the Korean Central News Agency said the dam’s first power station was completed in December 2010 following a “do-or-die battle” in which workers stayed underwater for more than 70 hours at a time to fight water pouring into a tunnel.
North Korean state media reported in August last year that a dam and surge tank for the second power station had been completed and work was continuing on the third.
Reported by Sung-hui Moon for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.