North Koreans mobilized to prevent monsoon damage – at personal cost

Pyongyang is prioritizing crops and forests, but ignoring homes and closing markets, the people say.
By Son Hye-min and Kim Jieun for RFA Korean
North Koreans mobilized to prevent monsoon damage – at personal cost Flooded farm land at Nampo village is seen in this picture released by North Korea's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang, July 31, 2012.

Facing the threat of widespread flooding during the summer rainy season, North Korean authorities have established nationwide emergency response committees, putting citizens to work preventing damage to crops and infrastructure projects – but neglecting people’s homes and livelihoods, residents say.

The directive is typical of those ordered by the Kim Jong Un regime, which often deploys stopgap measures to address immediate concerns without assessing their broader impact.

A resident of South Pyongan province, northeast of the capital Pyongyang, told RFA Korean that on July 10, the Party Organization of Unsan County “organized an emergency committee to prevent crop damage from floods.”

The committee, temporarily organized under the direction of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, was “organized in each city and county nationwide” and will operate until the end of the monsoon season, said the source who, like others interviewed for this report, requested anonymity citing security concerns.

“The committee has been preparing for flood damage beginning last week by mobilizing factory workers to dig ditches at cooperative farms that have outdated water pumps that are not functioning properly.”

The source said that while the county experienced about an hour of rain on July 14, most of the farmland was well drained, so no crops were damaged.

“However, 10 houses on the lowland in Jehyeon-ri [village] were submerged, causing damage,” she said.

The resident said that South Pyongan’s Unsan county and Tokchon city, located northeast of the county along the Taedong River, are known to have poorly equipped sewage systems. She said rainwater causes flood damage to low-lying areas – including residential zones – on an annual basis.

If the emergency response committee had instead ordered ditches to be dug at the front of Jehyeon-ri, “flooding of the low-lying houses could have been prevented,” she said.

The source said authorities were “ignorant” about the flooding of homes, despite the poor sewage systems, and the resulting inundation destroyed the homes’ kitchens and adjacent pigpens, killing the livestock.

Residents must ‘deal with’ damage

A second source in South Pyongan told RFA that the rain had a similar impact in Tokchon city, where a local emergency response committee had undertaken preventative work, and while no crops were damaged, “the residential village [of 15 households] in the lowlands was submerged up to the kitchen floor.”

She said that authorities “mobilized residents every day for labor,” sometimes to put sand in sacks collected from the local populace to repair river embankments, or to cover corn fields to protect it from the rain and wind.

However, they “paid no attention to concerns about the flooding of homes.”

Water swept into yards and homes, flooding rooms and destroying property, including blankets and televisions, she said.

“However, the emergency response committee is showing no interest in responding to the damage of private homes caused during the monsoon season,” she said. “Rather, they are telling residents to deal with it on their own, causing them to resent the authorities.”

Priority on saving crops

Experts say it is rare for an emergency committee to be organized under the direction of North Korea’s Central Committee, but note that protecting grain crops is the top priority among policy tasks set by Kim Jong Un this year.

The resident said that the Central Committee’s orders to prevent crop damage from flooding had been “specifically issued to each city and county party.”

“The emergency response committee, which is run by the chief secretary of the county party, plays a role in preventing the flooding of farmland growing corn and rice crops, and is fully implementing its orders at each county’s cooperative farm,” she said.

Koo Byoungsam, the spokesperson for the Unification Ministry of South Korea, which is also at risk of flooding during the monsoon season, confirmed to reporters at a press conference on Monday that the North had “recently placed an emphasis on minimizing the extent of damage” from heavy rains by issuing weather warnings through state media.

However, the extent of damage in the North so far remained unclear, he said.

In addition to monitoring the impact of heavy rain in the North, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has repeatedly urged Pyongyang to give prior notice before discharging dams and releasing water on rivers shared by the two nations.

Forest restoration

Meanwhile, officials in northern North Korea’s Ryanggang province, along the country’s border with China, have mobilized inhabitants of Hyesan city to “restore the forest” amid damage from a sudden torrential downpour on July 13-14, according to a provincial resident.

To do so, authorities temporarily suspended operation of the city’s four main marketplaces, cutting off residents’ access to critical income, he said.

“All residents must start restoring the forest under the instruction of the provincial party,” the resident said. “[A] terrace field [on a nearby mountain slope] planted last year collapsed due to the rainfall and the marketplaces were suspended for a day to restore the damage.”

The source said that the Central Committee had ordered Hyesan residents to construct terrace fields with rock walls along nearby mountain slopes as part of a tree planting initiative in 2022.

“But they collapsed in the recent rain, so [authorities] issued a mobilization order to all residents [to restore the trees],” he said. “The provincial party stopped all market operations in the city … It is a major blow to the livelihood of most residents who make their daily living through market business.”

According to the source, Hyesan residents have been complaining about the forest restoration order, questioning what good trees will do “when we are starving because there is nothing to eat right now.”

The source said that any resident who does not want to take part in the forest restoration must “prepare a lunch box [for others who are mobilized] and pay 10,000 won (US$1.20) in cash” – a substantial amount for the average North Korean.

“The party’s mobilization directive is an ‘anti-people’ policy that threatens livelihoods,” he said.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.


Aug 02, 2023 11:41 AM

Why obey? Where is the resistance, where is the struggle?? Or they don’t know how to sharpen a shovel for cutting ??? If party officials need firewood, then let them do it themselves!