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March 3, 2024

North Koreans forced to clear snow from roads to capital on Lunar New Year

Severe winter weather in North Korea dampened spirits over the Lunar New Year holiday, as the government forced citizens to shovel snow from major roads leading to the capital Pyongyang on one of their few days off, sources in the country told RFA.

Ordering people to provide free labor is common practice for the cash-strapped government, but making them toil away on arguably the most important holiday of the year, which fell on Jan. 22, made them especially angry, sources said.

“It snowed on the Lunar New Year in various parts of the country, including here in Kimchaek,” a woman from the city in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong told RFA’s Korean Service on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

“The children were playing in the snow, but everyone else was mobilized early in the morning to clear the snow on the roads, even on the holiday,” she said.

The source said that the head of each neighborhood watch unit went door to door to tell people they had to clear snow, so no one, including the source herself, could avoid participating.

“After clearing the roads all day, we had to shift to clearing the snow that had hardened into ice from car wheels.”

Each family is responsible for a particular section of road and had to work for about an hour, according to the source.

The country’s priority is to keep all the roads that lead to Pyongyang open to prevent disruptions of supplies to the city, but residents were very unhappy to have their holiday disturbed, sources said. 

Bitter days ahead 

The weather in North Korea is expected to take a turn for the worse, according to forecasts broadcast on the Lunar New Year.

“The forecast said that cold temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero [-22 degrees Fahrenheit],” a resident of North Hamgyong’s Puryong county told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

“The people are already having a harsh winter, without enough firewood or food,” he said.

People in Puryong are not well off, according to the county resident, so they cannot buy coal and firewood. Instead, the forest management office permits them to climb the nearby mountain once per week to forage for dead trees and shrubs they can burn to keep their homes warm.

Nonetheless, their televisions rang in the new year with images of smiling people in Pyongyang enjoying the holiday, a far cry from their reality.

“Here in the provinces, there were so many houses that couldn’t even have a special meal on New Year’s Day, let alone go watch art performances or play traditional games,” he said. “I couldn’t find anyone going out of their homes or smell the good food [they were cooking] like I did in times past.”

At the coldest time of the year, the government has also been cracking down on firewood and coal being sold on the black market, according to the second source.

“Most of the people have given up on heating their homes, using what little wood or charcoal they have to cook rice in the mornings and evenings,” he said.

The people are currently being made to collect scrap metal and make compost as part of government projects, and must return to frigid homes after a hard day’s work, according to the second source.

“The whole family sits around their stove where they cook dinner, warming their hands and feet,” he said. “The fire in the furnace is too small, so the room is cold. They cannot take off their socks and clothes and they must sleep so that their bodies are next to each other [to stay warm].”

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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