SEOUL—Details of a March visit by North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Il to Yanggang province have begun to trickle out of the isolated Stalinist state, with sources in the region saying the trip was costly and lacked any real value.
Instead, North Koreans in the area have described an elaborate propaganda exercise for which plans were first made six months earlier.
“New tools and machinery kits, purchased by the government, were brought to the Hyesan Steel Mill in September last year, but for a while were kept unpacked and unassembled,” a source familiar with the steel mill’s operations said.
In March, the new tools and machinery were assembled, “to operate them and provide a demonstration during Kim Jong Il’s visit,” the source added.
“No matter where he goes, inspections conducted by Kim Jong Il are pretty much like this.”
“He is not walking around trying to resuscitate the economy, but it appears that he is hell-bent on messing up whatever is left of it.”
The visit was later used by official media to trumpet economic recovery in the northern province.
A different reality
The reality on the ground was very different, the Hyesan resident said, with the steel mill operating only sporadically at the best of times owing to power cuts and a shortage of scrap steel.
In theory, Hyesan Steel Mill uses anthracite and petroleum coke imported from China to operate two 14-ton blast furnaces that produce rolled steel, reinforced steel bars, and cast iron.
But the source said that “once scrap iron is introduced into the 14-ton furnace, it takes three days to complete the production process.”
A new electron beam furnace with a capacity of 40 tons had yet to get under way due to power shortages.
“If power goes out and the steel production process is interrupted, the refractory bricks in the furnace crack, and they need to be replaced, and that is the main reason why the furnace could not operate,” the Hyesan source said.
“Those in charge really pushed their luck to fire it up during Kim Jong Il’s visit,” the source added.
A second Yanggang province resident said the steel mill, a shoe factory, a performing arts theater, and a noodle restaurant had begun laying in supplies needed to showcase Kim’s visit to the province.
“Beginning last year, to prepare for Kim Jong Il’s visit, a lot of cosmetic work began to be performed on the Hyesan Shoe Factory,” the second source said.
Metal shoe lasts, which had been stolen during the famine of the 1990s, were replaced in anticipation of Kim’s visit, although workers had been using wooden lasts for many years.
“Workers from Kyungong [the company that made the replacements] came on a fact-finding mission in mid-April, and on May 10 rubber and other materials needed for footwear production were sent via freight train, just to prepare to put on a show during Kim Jong Il’s visit to the footwear factory,” the source said.
Last month, Chinese netizens reacted angrily to Kim’s luxurious and elaborate visit to China, with large numbers taking part in a campaign on Twitter headlined “Kim Jong Il, get out of China!”
Netizens lashed out at Kim for occupying the presidential suite at the Furama Hotel in the northeastern port city of Dalian, which costs 16,000 yuan (U.S. $2,300) per night, more than the annual per capita economic output of North Korea.
Chinese commenters on the microblogging service Twitter also criticized the wastefulness of the huge limousine motorcade that followed Kim, saying the money spent on the motorcade was taken from the “flesh and blood” of the North Korean people.
China potentially wields great influence on North Korea as the country’s largest provider of food and fuel aid.
Original reporting in Korean by Sung Hwi Moon. Korean service director: Bong Park. Translated from the Korean by Greg Scarlatoiu. Written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.