It doesn’t take long for visitors to Pyongyang to notice the small boats dotted along the Taedong river, mounted either with cranes or laden with aggregate-filled cargoes. The presence of these dredgers, removing sands, sediment, and shingle from the bottom of the water body, is one of the many things that set the city apart.
Working all year round – with the exception of when the river freezes in winter – men aboard these boats can be seen collecting and sorting materials from the riverbed around the clock.
Dredging is done for various reasons around the world, but a 1980s policy by North Korea’s founding president Kim Il Sung – the construction of the Nampo Dam – largely explains why the process has for so long been critical to the capital city.
And the results it yields provide more than environmental benefits, with the sand and aggregates extracted helping construction projects all over the city, as well as an emerging entrepreneurial class.
MAN MADE MATTER
The principle reason silt and sand build up on the Taedong river each year relates to the 1980s construction of the West Sea Barrage, also known as the Nampo Dam, a six-mile system of dams, locks, and sluices that separate the capital’s river from the sea.
Located near the port of Nampo, the barrage was built between 1981 and 1986 by 30,000 soldiers to serve a number of purposes. Firstly, to improve agricultural irrigation by keeping salt-water out of the Taedong river; secondly, to connect provinces long split by the natural bay; and thirdly, to facilitate shipping in Nampo port, on the sea-side of the barrage.
But the construction of the barrage – still lauded today by North Korean propagandists as a feat of the Kim Il Sung-era system – has significantly impacted the way water flows along the river, says Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters, a research fellow at the Australian National University. And that is why, along with the results of other issues particular to North Korea, dredging is now so vital on the Taedong.
“Tidal barrages dramatically impact the hydrological flow of a river,” says Winstanley-Chester. “(They can) substantially slow the flow of the water in a river and therefore make it much less able to carry a high sediment load.”
As a result, the academic says the West Sea Barrage would “have had a dramatic impact on the speed of the flow of the Taedong in the final stages of its course (where it runs through Pyongyang).”
The result? A slower water flow that “would itself have a dramatic impact on the sediment-carrying capacity of the river,” with the additional problem that without dredging to remove the sediment build-up, “the depth of the river and its navigability would be heavily compromised in a fairly short space of time.”
Compounding these issues, Dr. Winstanley-Chesters adds, are factors linked to the famine of the 1990s which left hundreds of thousands dead, and – as a result of citizens subsequently exploiting every square inch of land to survive – significant geographical impact.
“Since the collapse of irrigation systems and terracing patterns across North Korea in the early 1990s, as well as the heavy deforestation of its hills and mountains, North Korea’s rivers have had to carry an enormously increased sediment load,” he says.
As a result, “the Taedong is forced… to carry a much higher sediment load than a river of its size and topography elsewhere.” Combine those issues with the West Sea Barrage at the river’s end and the result is an estuary which is “much less efficient and able to carry the load.”
Consequently, this “necessitates extensive dredging to manage stream flow not only in Pyongyang, but also to prevent damage and silting at the Barrage itself,” as well as the risk of potential flooding.
And beyond those type of problems, a lack of dredging along the city’s main fresh water supply could even have deadly consequences, due to an “increased build up of pollutants and toxic materials in the river at its most heavily populated and important point.”
While the never-ending dredging requirement might initially seem a burden for any city, it’s a process that comes with benefits for both the city and local entrepreneurs.
“The sand and silt pulled out can be used to make construction material, cement and so on,” says Simon Cockerell, a regular visitor to the country and general manager of Koryo Tours.
So while North Korea has numerous all-sand beaches, its dilapidated rail and road system means transporting large quantities for construction can be both costly and slow.
As a result, the build-up of sand in Pyongyang – where the majority of construction efforts are focused – is beneficial.
In particular, Cockerell says, “the Taedong River… silts up and sandbars appear, especially at the north end of Yanggak Island.” And it’s at this location where the majority of dredging and aggregate processing can be seen to take place in Pyongyang.
Photos taken as recently as October 2016 show extensive aggregate processing operations at the location, with the finished materials “shipped to construction sites on the Taedong River for immediate use,” according to a Daily NK report last September.
And while dredging has been taking place along the river for years, the Daily NK added it’s a sector which has now attracted the involvement of local entrepreneurs (donju), both as a “source for sand…and a new focus for their investment”.
The very involvement of private entrepreneurs in the process has also led to the stimulation of other economic opportunities, for both vendors and local workers alike, along the banks of the river, another Daily NK article says.
On the one hand, “the sand mining industry is spreading at a rapid rate, and thanks to word of mouth about ample opportunities for work, day workers line up in the masses from the crack of dawn,” an unnamed source told the Daily NK in 2015.
And on the other, “as the number of day workers keep rising into the hundreds, business-savvy food vendors have moved from the marketplace to around Taedong River, so there’s now a new area with food stands there.”