Juche steel

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The Kim Chaek steel complex has cropped up in the news several times in recent months, but not in the way heroic way it was again invoked in the joint New Year’s editorial. Stresses at such highly-visible facilities—Kim Jong Il visited the plant in December--should be taken as particularly worrisome signs of wider developments.

The Sungjin Iron Works and Kim Chaek (or Gimchek) Steel have been heralded as producers of “juche steel,” produced by using domestic coal rather than imported energy and coke. The Kim Chaek plant, reported to have 25,000 employees, seems to have suffered damage last summer as a result of power outages, and Good Friends reported food shortages and absent workers at the time.  In January, DailyNK reported that several general trading companies were in China seeking to barter steel for food. One recent report now suggests that the plant may be operating at less than half of capacity, while other analysts put the figure even lower, with wide implications for the entire regional economy of Chongjin. Good Friends reports the kind of vicious cycle at the plant that characterizes the economy as a whole: rations have been pared back to a maximum of ten-days worth of corn; absenteeism is up; and the authorities have responded with tougher disciplinary actions, including longer incarceration in labor training camps. An even more troubling development for these capital-intensive behemoths is the ongoing theft of state property, from welding machines to scrap copper. These incremental changes ultimately have cumulative effects; at some point the lack of inputs and labor and the degradation of capital equipment will simply make it impossible to continue production.

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