North Koreans step up scrap metal collection to support struggling steel works

Besides the lack of raw materials, electricity and fuel shortages are hindering the country’s steel output.
By Chang Gyu Ahn for RFA Korean
2023.01.05
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North Koreans step up scrap metal collection to support struggling steel works Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex is seen in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sept. 26, 2018. A resident says the facility is not operating due to a lack of electricity and coke.
KCNA via Reuters

North Korea has ordered its people to donate large amounts of scrap metal in the new year to help the country’s steel industry, which is struggling from a lack of fuel, electricity and raw materials, sources in the country told Radio Free Asia.

The scrap is in addition to an existing monthly quota, a resident of the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“On Jan. 2, the first work day of the new year, employees of all the factories and enterprises had to report to work with sleds and carts filled with all the scrap metal they collected,” the source said, adding that the government has recently been pushing support for the metalworking sector in its propaganda messaging.

“On New Year’s Day, I wasn’t able to rest properly because I was out searching every corner of town trying to collect the required 10 kilograms [22 pounds] of scrap metal. This is in addition to our monthly scrap metal assignment,” said the source.

Every North Korean of elementary school age or above must collect between eight and 15 kilograms of scrap metal each month. The collected metal is donated to the state and distributed to steel mills all over the country.

“North Hamgyong province is home to the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex – the largest steel mill in the nation – and other steel making facilities,” the source said, “But the province is not able to meet the demand for steel products.”

The source cited a lack of electricity and scrap metal as the main obstacles to meeting demand.

ENG_KOR_SteelMill_01052023.2.JPG
Steel is produced at the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sept. 26, 2018. Credit: KCNA via Reuters

A resident in the city of Chongjin, where Kim Chaek Steel is located, told RFA that the facility can only run intermittently, owing to electricity and fuel shortages.

“Smoke only comes out of the chimney of the steel mill a few days each year,” he said on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

Despite the plant idling on most days, the resident of Chongjin said state media has been reporting that Kim Chaek is meeting production demand and building a new energy-saving oxygen-thermal furnace.

“The New Year’s prospects for Kim Chaek Steel are very bleak,” he said.

Key to the facility’s performance is its supply of coke, a coal-based fuel that is necessary in the steel melting process.

Companies in China previously supplied coke to North Korean steel mills on credit, but are increasingly reluctant to do so as the mills have failed to repay their debts, according to the Chongjin resident.

“A few years ago, a manager of the [Kim Chaek] steel mill was on a business trip in China to try to solve the coke issue. The [Chinese] company detained him, saying that they wouldn’t release him until [the mill] repaid what it had borrowed,” he said. “North Korean authorities were forced to pay back part of the outstanding debt.” 

The price of coke is also rising, so the new oxygen-thermal furnace is intended to help solve the issue, according to the Chongjin-based source. But he said that it was “not a very clever solution” because this method requires even more electricity to produce the oxygen needed in the process, and North Korea suffers from nationwide power shortages.

Translated by Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong

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