DPRK (and Beijing) Day eleven, part two
10.09.2019 - 10.09.2019
We had spent the morning visiting two final (for now) sights in Pyongyang – Mirae Scientists’ Street and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. After a hurried lunch of pizza (yes really – and it was good too!), it was time to leave the capital and see what the north east of the country had in store for us.
Arriving at the airport
We arrived at Pyongyang Airport about an hour before our scheduled 14.00 departure so there was no time to lose. We checked our small bag and got a receipt but no boarding card. The security check queue was a bit chaotic but the check itself was quick and once through we boarded immediately - no time for the bathroom break I would have appreciated!
Kim Il Sung's Ilyushin Il-18D
Our plane was a four propeller Ilyushin Il-18D, dating probably from 1969, and Carl told us that it was one of only two in the country and had previously been the private plane of Kim Il Sung before being repurposed for charter flights. He used it many times in the 70s and 80s on his journeys abroad and also around the country to give his on the spot guidance to his people. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside so I can’t share with you the tasteful pseudo-fabric plastic wall coverings in yellow and brown, the old-fashioned rose-ornamented woven curtains separating each section and the blue plush seats!
Boarding the plane
As we had no boarding card no seats were allocated – instead the cabin crew showed us to vacant seats, rather like cinema ushers. Although I got the window seat I’d hoped for, my view was limited as the window was clouded over – whether by dirt or some fault in the plastic I wasn’t sure. In any case no photos were allowed, so I used the 80 minute flight to catch up on these notes and skim through the Pyongyang Times we were given, which headlined with the approach of Typhoon Number 13, having been published last Saturday. One thing that struck me from the stories was the frequent mention of communal efforts, for example:
Pyongyang Times 7.9.19
‘Tens of thousands of people in the hard-hit counties of Pyoksong, Jangyon, Songhwa and others of South Hwanghae Province were out to repair more than 120 kilometres of roads, while those of Pyoksong County completely reconstructed damaged buildings.’
Note that this was published just three days after the storm, and there is no mention at all of people dealing with the damage to their own homes. Presumably the collective effort and repairs to the regional infrastructure were prioritised over the individual.
There was also coverage of the 14th National Conference of Teachers, with a photo of some of them crying with joy as they shook Kim Jong Un’s hand, and the visit of the Chinese foreign minister to Pyongyang. I read with interest a piece headlined ‘Cradle of people’s life and happiness’:
‘The Korean people call the country a home of their life. It is a true voice for the socialist country.
In the DPRK all citizens aged 17 and above take part in the election of power organs with a right to elect and to be elected, and the power organs are made up of representatives of the people.
In the country, where top and absolute priority is given to the people’s demands and the selfless, devoted efforts for the people are set as the main principle of state activities, people’s will and demand are correctly reflected on its policy and all state activities are conducted accordingly…
Thanks to the policy of the state, which spares nothing for the good of the people, modern dwelling houses and cultural recreation places are on the increase and all activities are conducted on the principle of giving top priority to and absolutizing their convenience…
Today the Korean people take it as their sacred duty to value their socialist country which adds brilliance to the dignity and life of humanity, and work for national prosperity.’
Arrival in the north east
We landed at Orang Airport which also serves as a military airfield so again photography was strictly off limits. The air was pleasantly fresher here than it had been in Pyongyang. We were bused to the small terminal building, which we never got to enter as our bags followed on a truck from which we retrieved them before walking across to the waiting bus. We were greeted by our young local guide, whose name I didn’t quite catch (and couldn’t share here if I had).
Boarding our bus at Orang Airport
On the bus our guide welcomed us to the region and explained about local photography rules. It was much stricter than in Pyongyang; no photos at all were to be taken from the bus, and she would tell us at each stop what we could photograph. This was a shame, as the first part of our drive was very scenic – although the road was so bumpy that it’s possible that no photos would have come out well even if allowed.
On reflection later I wondered to what extent the ban on photos from the bus was due to local rules and what to her own inexperience. She told us she had been guiding for just two years so unlike our main guide might have found it easier to just say ‘no photos’ much of the time rather than give us guidelines and monitor whether or not we followed them. Although in any case, I understand from Carl that photography restrictions have always been tighter in this part of the country, lagging some ten years or so behind Pyongyang, so maybe she was just following company policy.
Either way she probably made the right call, as although I would have appreciated the flexibility offered to us elsewhere in the country, one of our companions (who had already caused some friction by not following our guide’s instructions when in Kaesong) would certainly have tested her to, or even beyond, her limits!
Map in the car park, Yombun Revolutionary Site
We stopped at the Yombun Revolutionary Site, also known as Yombunjin. A flight of stone steps took us down to a coastal footpath which led to a small pavilion on a rocky outcrop.
Coastal scenery, looking south
~ you can see the outcrop and suspension bridge on the far right
To reach the pavilion we had to take a rather wobbly suspension bridge! The views of the coastline made the walk worthwhile and I grabbed a photo of some anglers too – after all, we had been told we could take any photos we wanted here!
Coastal scenery and suspension bridge
Cliffs, and the rather wobbly bridge!
Fishermen at Yombun Revolutionary Site
I asked our main guide about the historical significance of the site but all she could tell me was that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk had visited this spot in 1947, and more recently Kim Jong Un had paid several visits. Further research on my return home has uncovered a bit more detail about that 1947 visit. On 25 September of that year President Kim Il Sung and his wife Kim Jong Suk visited this area, bringing with them a young Kim Jong Il. The President talked with the local fisherman, offering on the spot guidance and calling on them to help in building the new country, and even did a bit of fishing himself. He then took a boat out to the rocky islet, which today is linked to the mainland by the rope bridge we had used, where he posed for photographs. Meanwhile the young Kim Jong Il climbed the nearby Kyesung Peak.
Coastal scenery looking north
~ walking back towards the car park
Welcome to Chongjin
We continued our bus journey into Chongjin, an industrial city known also as the ‘City of Iron’. Originally a fishing village, Chongjin underwent massive growth during the 20th century as the Japanese made it into a major port and industrial city. They declared it an ‘open trading port’ for the transport of Korean resources and as a stopping point for resources from China. Its factories produced steel, machinery and chemical fibres, and it mushroomed in size and population, which was, by 1945, around 300,000 people.
Just two-thirds of the population survived the US bombing during the Korean War, but Chongjin remained a major industrial city under the new regime, until the DPRK was hit, in the 1990s, by the ‘double whammy’ of famine and the collapse of its Eastern European bloc partners, primarily the Soviet Union. A UN official who visited the city in 1997 remarked that Chongjin was 'like a forest of scrap metal, with huge plants that seem to go on for miles and miles that have been turned into rust buckets. I've been all over the world, and I've never seen anything quite like this.’
The Bradt guidebook describes Chongjin’s recent history very vividly, quoting that same official it seems:
‘The economic collapse of the 1990s devastated Chongjin. At first the factories struggled and people became malnourished, but as time went by many plants shut up shop completely. Those who were young, or savvy enough, managed to adapt –just – by engaging in pursuits such as private enterprise and smuggling, or by simply foraging for food in the hills. However, many of Chongjin’s residents, who had only ever known a system where the state provided all and only knew to do as they were told, ultimately starved. The city seemed to have been forgotten by the state and by Pyongyang, and left to fend for itself. The worst was over by the turn of the century, but Chongjin looked in parts like a dystopic wasteland – a forest of scrap metal and sea of cracked concrete, with smoke and dust heavy in the air.
Over the last ten years or so, however, Chongjin has slowly begun the long process of picking itself up, dusting itself off and getting back to work as the country’s unofficial northern capital. Factories are slowly coming back online, more traffic – including the previously semi-dilapidated trams – can be seen on the streets and, perhaps most tellingly, the people that call this struggling city home seem happier and more optimistic – like a great weight has been lifted from their shoulders. As the province looks to the possibility of doing serious business with Russia and China (Vladivostok and the massive Chinese city of Changchun are both closer than Pyongyang is), prospects in Chongjin can surely only improve as time goes by.’
Interestingly our main guide, who usually liked to put a positive gloss on everything we saw and everywhere we went, confirmed that Chongjin had really suffered during the famine and said that people were even dropping dead in the streets from lack of food.
Although we couldn't take any photos of the city today there would be opportunities to do so tomorrow - here's a sneak preview!
Industry in Chongjin
Chongjin Institute of Foreign Languages
Here we had one of those ‘only in Korea’ sightseeing stops, at the Foreign Languages School. We were shown around by one of the teachers who proudly showed off the painting in the hallway depicting a visit to the school by Kim Jong Il in 1990, photos of pupils who had won honours and medals, and a series of paintings and posters exhorting the students to study hard as their duty to their country, etc. etc.
Photo in the lobby
Teacher welcoming us to the Foreign Languages School
Propaganda posters in the hallway
The highlight of our visit was ‘dropping in’ (I use the inverted commas because it was clearly all staged) on an English class in progress. We heard the pupils discussing the issue of traffic pollution, all of them concluding that the much lighter traffic in a photo of Pyongyang was a sign that their country was the healthiest in which to live.
In the classroom
We were then encouraged to go and talk to the students. I approached two girls who immediately offered me a seat and then proceeded to ask a succession of probably carefully rehearsed questions – or at least one did, the other being a little shy it seemed. How old was I? What was my favourite colour and favourite sport? Where had we visited in the country? What is the highest mountain in England? What countries had I visited and what languages did I speak? I gave as good as I got, quizzing them about their studies, ambitions for the future (one wanted to be a doctor and one a teacher), their favourite sports (ping-pong and football) and more.
Their teacher joined us and asked about the English education system – she seemed dubious when I assured her it was free until age 18, not 16 as she had thought. They were also interested in the differences between U.K. and US English, and I told them a little bit about regional dialects in the U.K. When the session finished, I took their photo and went to meet up with Chris to take his photo with the young male student with whom he'd been chatting.
The two girls I spoke with
Chris with 'his' pupil
After leaving the school we went for dinner in a typically over-the-top decorated restaurant which like many we went to had a top table set out for a non-existent wedding.
The food was good, with the best rice dish we’d had to date on the tour, and something of a Chinese influence in some of the other dishes.
The top table
Vegetables topped with an egg
The Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings
After dinner it was time to go to check in to our hotel, the Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings. Neither our Korean guide nor Carl had stayed here before, as it has only recently started to welcome tourists, having previously been used to accommodate foreign engineers working at the steelworks here. It was considerably more basic than the Kaesong hotel, making that indeed seem quite luxurious! Chris and I had a couple of interconnecting rooms with between them four exceedingly hard beds. There was no shower and no running water, hot or cold - just a plastic tub full to the brim and a very flowery toilet!
Three beds in one room ...
... and one in the other
Our only source of water
But at least the toilet looks nice!
With nothing much to do, a long day behind us and no doubt another long and busy one tomorrow, we decided on an early night. I piled as many duvets as could be spared on to my rock-hard bed to soften it, set the electric fan running (the a/c cut out after two minutes, no matter how low I set it), and settled down for what proved to be slightly fitful but adequate sleep.
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Travels on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!
Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.
This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.
Having said that, all views expressed above and in all my entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.