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How one North Korean man was purged for no real reason

In June 2020, the iconic Changgwangwon Health Complex in North Korea celebrated its 40th anniversary. The complex is known among Pyongyang residents for having a good, reliable water management system despite the age of the facilities. But over the past 40 years, the tragic story of the designer behind this acclaimed water management system has been lost to history.

The man’s story begins in the late 1970s when Kim Jong Il sought to cement his position as successor and “Dear Leader” by pouring resources into the construction of public recreational facilities. At that time, the Pyongyang Municipal Construction Enterprise recommended Oh Pyong-joon, an ordinary designer in his 40s, to help design and build the Changgwangwon Health Complex.

At the heart of the Changgwangwon complex construction project was the question of how to handle the water management system. The construction manager and officials in charge of the project were considering a system for filtering and reusing water from the swimming pools and baths when Oh made the novel suggestion of drawing clean water from the nearby Taedong River instead.

Ultimately, Oh’s proposal won out among the various solutions presented to Kim Jong Il and the Workers’ Party, and his system was implemented. The Changgwangwon Health Complex with Oh’s water management system was successfully opened on Mar. 21, 1980. Oh was later recognized for his contribution, awarded the title of “Meritorious Designer” and promoted to a new position as a cabinet-level official.

Ten years after the Changgwangwon complex opened to the public, a party-affiliated historical research institute told a slightly different story. The new historical records claimed that “at the time, all the officials involved in the construction project proposed a filtration system, but Dear Leader Kim Jong Il insisted that the people’s service [public recreation] facilities must have the highest possible water quality and made the decision to draw water directly from the Taedong River to provide fresh, clean water at all times.”

Although Oh, the mastermind behind the idea, learned of this new story, he never revealed the truth of the matter, even to his own wife and child. Believing that his fate and his child’s future depended on the Kim leadership and the party, Oh kept his head down and focused his energy on the tasks he was given. A loyal and dedicated worker, he quietly spent his life devoted to the nation.

An out-of-the-blue purge

Oh worked hard and eventually retired. Then, early one morning in September 2014, ten officials from the Special Security Division of the Ministry of Social Security and the Military Security Command stormed into the Oh family’s home in the Kyonghyung neighborhood of Pyongyang’s Central District.

The officials told Oh that he had been “identified as a modern factionalist who is damaging the authority and dignity of the Party and the legacy of the Beloved Great General [Kim Jong Il] and must obey orders.” Those orders, it turns out, included the exile of the retired designer (then 73), his wife, Oh’s son, his wife, and their two grandchildren to a remote mountain village.

Oh and his family were sent to Pujon County in South Hamgyong Province, a mountainous area that is barren of crops and frosty even in the summer. In this hellish exile, the retired designer and his wife eventually died just one year later in July 2015. Their son’s family is said to still be living there, keeping a low profile under the fierce scrutiny of North Korean law enforcement.

“[Oh’s exile] came at the same time as Jang Song-thaek’s purge in December 2013, which was carried out in the general name of solidifying the party’s monolithic leadership system,” explained a source in North Korea familiar with the affair. “The Marshal [Kim Jong Un] directly issued the order to ‘clean up the ranks’ and get rid of anyone who might pose the slightest obstacle to glorifying the revolutionary achievements of the leader [Kim Il Sung] and the general [Kim Jong Il], regardless of that person’s rank or contributions.”

In the process of shoring up the foundations of Kim Jong Un’s newfound power and purifying the ranks, some innocent and loyal workers were swept away, including Oh, whose only crime was to know the truth behind the design of the Changgwangwon complex’s water system.

On Mar. 22, 2020, the Rodong Sinmun commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Changgwangwon Complex, writing, “In the blink of an eye, forty years have passed since the opening of the Changgwangwon Health Complex, a famous all-inclusive recreational facility that echoes with the people’s laughter all year round.”

The anniversary coverage did not fail to mention Kim Jong Il’s alleged role in the complex’s water management system. The article also added that Kim Jong Il had spent part of the last evening before his death reviewing documents related to the Changgwangwon Health Complex.

Translated by Rose Adams. Edited by Robert Lauler.

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Read in Korean

February 28, 2024 at 01:00PM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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