On November 30, 1991, a massive explosion occurred in the North Korean city of Kanggye – likely killing as many as a thousand people.
Despite taking more lives than the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the catastrophe remains largely unknown internationally.
In this piece, I intend to shed some light on this tragic event, drawing primarily on the memoirs of Ko Chong Song, an official who worked in Kanggye as a food supply instructor at the time of the accident.
KIM IL SUNG’S PRECIOUS
The history of the factory where the explosion took place begins in 1946, when a small plant was opened in the village of Phyongchon, now part of Pyongyang.
During the Korean War, the factory was evacuated to Songchon County in Jagang Province and named Factory 65. After the war, it was split in three, creating Factories 65, 93, and 26.
Factory 26 is located in Namchon District in the southwest of Kanggye, the capital of Jagang Province. The first mention of the city comes in 1402, according to a report by Park Sohye, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Korean Studies. The city has, ever since, been a place of strategic military importance by virtue of its proximity to the Chinese border.
The factory, as is often the case with places of strategic importance in North Korea, has an official name designed to cover its true purpose – Kanggye Tractor Factory – though no tractors have been manufactured there.
In fact, Factory 26 produces ammunition: mortar ammunition (126,000 per year), rifle ammunition (1.76 million per year), and self-propelled artillery ammunition.
The factory reports to the Second Directorate of the Second Economy Committee. The former is responsible for ammunition production; the latter manages the military economy in North Korea.
Factory 26 is perhaps the most renowned military industry location in the country. Ammunition produced at the factory has been exported to Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt – yielding a significant share of the country’s foreign currency.
Kim Il Sung loved the factory, describing it as “a mother of our military industry… our treasure.”
Missiles in North Korea are normally manufactured by factories reporting to the Seventh Directorate, but in the early 1990s, Factory 26 also manufactured missiles. SCUDs, the Hwasongs 1 and 2, and various types of land-to-air, air-to-land, and air-to-surface missiles were all produced at Factory 26.
Factory 26 produces ammunition
More than a thousand people were employed at the factory, which had a tradition of generational service: a son worked at the factory after his father and his son after him, forming engineering dynasties. Many of its engineers were decorated, a few even receiving the Order of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s highest honor.
It also had its own research center. In 1989, the secret police arrested a researcher, Phyo Il Yong (표일용), for espionage: apparently, the secret police explained, American intelligence had bribed her into divulging military secrets when she visited West Germany as a member of a negotiation team.
Of course, the security regime in the factory was one of the strictest in the country. In an unorthodox move, it actually had its own guard units, in addition to ordinary police providing security.
On one occasion, the factory received a visit from Han Tok Su, leader of the Korean Residents’ Association in Japan (known as Chongryon) and one of Kim Il Sung’s closest confidantes. But even Han was only shown parts of the factory, those not directly related to production.
He took offense and pleaded with Kim Il Sung to be allowed access, saying that he was trustworthy. Kim calmly told Han that the rules of the factory are very strict and must be followed, showing how important the factory was to North Korea’s leadership.
November 30, 1991 – a Saturday morning. Thak Chun San, an assembly section chief, was tired from having worked the night shift. Around 0930, he mishandled some gunpowder, causing a small explosion and a fire to break out.
The frightened engineer immediately called an alert. The biggest danger was that the steel doors to the underground factory might be open, in which the fire and explosions could cause enormous damage to the city.
A young woman who was with the guards at the time called the firemen station. The police were mobilized too.
About 60 policemen were sent in, forming three squads of twenty people each. All the members of the first and second squad perished while trying to close the steel doors. The third squad went in and successfully closed the doors, though fourteen policemen died in the process.
Unfortunately, their heroic sacrifice was not enough. The fire rapidly expanded into a massive pillar of flames, triggering more and more explosions.
A sonic wave crashed into the windows of neighboring houses. People looked out their windows and saw that the explosions had also damaged the city’s power plant, cutting electrical power and sending a red flash up into the sky. Some thought it was an earthquake, but then they saw a fiery mushroom cloud where once Factory 26 had been.
The local authorities were immediately alerted. Cars with megaphones patrolled the streets, telling citizens to immediately evacuate all areas within 40 kilometers of the explosion. All ordinary and secret police units and all military men not on duty were summoned to an emergency meeting in front of the police office.
The fire rapidly expanded into a massive pillar of flames, triggering more and more explosions
Meanwhile, the explosions continued, and the entire Factory 26 was soon in flames. The damage was so devastating that some thought that the factory had suffered a missile strike from an enemy nation. The fire spread to a neighboring factory, which also started to burn.
Tens of thousands of people began to flee the city. Some carried their TV sets with them, some took their food, while the most loyal carried Kim Il Sung portraits. Some refugees were wounded, and the whole situation looked like a war had just broken out.
North Korea has often threatened to turn Seoul into a sea of flames. While the South Korean capital remains safe, witnesses say the dramatic imagery accurately describes that day at Kanggye, where fires would not settle down until the following day.
Officials claimed that the accident took 130 lives, while witnesses put the number at closer to a thousand.
It goes without saying that the story received zero coverage in the Rodong Sinmun. A Zairian newspaper mentioning the publication of Kim Jong Il’s work was a more important piece of news, at least judging from the front page the following day.
Some thought that the factory had suffered a missile strike from an enemy nation
Kim Il Sung conferred the title of “Hero of the Republic” to the local Party organization chief and the head of the ordinary police for their efforts.
However, there were persistent rumors that the Great Leader was upset about the blow to the military industry. Dozens of mines and missiles and thousands of shells were lost and the production facility devastated.
High officials were demoted – including Kim Chol Man, the Chairman of the Second Economy Committee, and Chon Pyong Ho, the secretary responsible for military industry. The director of the factory, Pyon Yong Sae, was saved from execution only on the personal command of Kim Il Sung and sent to a labor camp instead.
Finally, for 20 days after the accident, all communication and movement to and from Kanggye and Jagang Province were forbidden. The aim was to stop rumors from spreading, an impossible goal: the red glow from Kanggye was seen as far as Huichon, a city more than 150 kilometers away.
The explosion at Factory 26 was not the only catastrophe in the history of North Korea, nor was it the largest – that took place in 1979 in Hungnam at Yongsong station, when five tons of gunpowder detonated due to an accident.
The authorities’ policy in most cases is the same: say nothing. One can only wonder what other secrets North Korean history holds.
Edited by Bryan Betts and Oliver Hotham
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