North Korean infrastructure authorities are permitting drivers to use a new tunnel that passes through a mountainous area which has been problematic for motorists for years, even though they have temporarily suspended construction because of a lack of building materials, sources inside the country said.
Numerous traffic accidents have occurred over the years in Machonryong, a huge mountain pass and canyon located along the border between Kimchaek in North Hamgyong province and Tanchon in South Hamgyong province, where several fatal accidents have occurred, they said.
North Korean authorities opened the tunnel in April to prevent further accidents, said a source from North Hamgyong province.
“Because traffic accidents at the Machonryong pass constantly occur, shock troops from North and South Hamgyong provinces began to dig a tunnel through the mountain and put some finishing touches on the construction project in April,” he told RFA’s Korean Service.
“Even though the construction has not been fully completed, authorities have started to charge the cars that pass through the tunnel a fee,” he said.
The country’s Construction Command has set the toll price at 15,000 North Korean won (U.S. $1.90 on the black market) for each car that passes through the three-kilometer (1.9-mile) Machonryong tunnel, he said.
The command is illegally letting drivers who can afford the toll to use the tunnel, even though the facility has not been completed and officially opened yet, the source said.
Not enough building material
A deadly bus accident occurred along the Machonryong pass in mid-May when the driver attempted to cross over the mountain in rainy weather to avoid paying the tunnel toll, and the vehicle plunged to the valley below, killing 26 passengers and seriously injuring seven others, the source said.
“The accident occurred because the bus detoured around the tunnel and went over a high and dangerous hill to avoid paying the toll,” he said.
The new tunnel is built of rock, so that the possibility of collapse and accidents caused by falling rocks is not high, another North Korean source told RFA.
“But the inside of the tunnel requires a coat of cement to waterproof it and prevent rain from entering,” he said.
“The internal construction of the tunnel is not fully complete and has been temporarily discontinued because there is not enough cement and rebar to finish it,” he said. “Meanwhile, the Construction Command is illegally allowing cars to pay the toll and pass through the tunnel.”
“This consequently caused the bus accident tragedy,” he said.
Traffic accidents are frequent in North Korea in general because long-distance buses are old and poorly maintained, and many people travel in car trunks due to the lack of sufficient public transportation, said the source from North Hamgyong province.
Several years ago, a bus transporting dozens of North Hamgyong provincial government officials returning from a conference in the capital Pyongyang fell off Machonryong Hill, he said.
“Drivers have referred to Machonryong as a fine line between life and death for a long time,” the source said.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Dohyun Gwon. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.