A Travellerspoint blog

In our country …

DPRK (and Beijing) Day twelve

View DPRK 2019 on ToonSarah's travel map.

View from our bedroom, with 'arty' edit

A favourite phrase of our North Korean guides was ‘In our country …’, and perhaps nowhere more so than here in the northern part of the DPRK. One thing we were to find out today was that ‘in our country’ logic means little when it comes to applying the rules.

We had been told yesterday that we shouldn’t take photos of the scene outside the hotel windows so we didn’t – although a photo of the bedroom window itself seemed just about within the rules, and was it my fault if the view beyond was in the shot?! The window was so grubby, however, that only a very 'artistic' edit could make for an interesting photo of the view.

Corridor leading to our room

The unedited version of the above image

Breakfast egg!

Breakfast table

The hotel lobby

Gathering in the lobby after one of the more ‘interesting’ breakfasts of the trip (cold but prettily decorated fried egg, kimchee, fried fish etc.) we were all regretting that we couldn’t go outside to take photos – except suddenly we were told ‘Of course, why not?’

Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings

Heading to work in Chongjin, passing the Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings

The day continued in a similar vein: we could include larger ships in our photos of a view of the coastline but not small fishing boats; we could take photos from the trolley bus we rode on around Chongjin, but not from our tour bus; one person was stopped from taking a photo of a cart being pulled by an oxen, but not of one being pulled by a man; and so on.

‘In our country’ we have to accept that some things are just not permitted, without necessarily having a clear rationale for the prohibition. And when you step out of line you will most likely be pulled up …

But I get ahead of myself. We checked out after breakfast, loaded our small bags on to the bus and drove to our first sight. The conversation this morning was all about the rooms in which we had spent the night. A few lucky people had had a shower (of sorts) in the bathroom, one even with hot water, but most of us had not. The plumbing arrangements in general seemed to vary from room to room, but running water was a scarcity and hard beds an issue for many. There was one moaner, as there so often is ('I wouldn't ask a dog to spend a night in this place!'), but most of us took it all in our stride, as we had been warned a few of the hotels used on the tour would be pretty basic. Nothing was unacceptably poor (certainly any dog would have been happy here!) and it made for a good story, after all.

On Komalsan Hill

We started the day with a visit to a viewpoint on Komalsan Hill, overlooking the city's East Port. It was here that we were told we must compose our photos to exclude the small fishing boats in the foreground – a shame, as their blue awnings made a good splash of colour, but we all complied.

The view from Komalsan Hill
~ the small boats are cut off from the foreground

View from Komalsan Hill
~ showing the industrial complexes beyond the port wasn't a problem

View from Komalsan Hill
~ small traditional houses on the other side of the viewing area

Monument to the Soviet Soldiers

Also on this hill is the Monument to the Soviet Soldiers killed while fighting with the Koreans against the Japanese. This is interesting because it is one of the relatively few places in the country where the Soviet effort in that fight is acknowledged (another is the Liberation Monument in Pyongyang which we only ever saw in passing).

The light here wasn’t great for photos (the sun was low and coming from an awkward direction) but I got a few of the brutalist style sculptures that I love, and also the gold bust which our local guide said was a memorial to a young doctor, just sixteen years old, who treated many of the Soviet soldiers.

Statues at the Monument to the Soviet Soldiers

Monument with Cyrillic lettering, and bust of the young doctor

We spent a bit of time trying to figure out the Cyrillic lettering on the main monument and between us managed to make out ‘Moscow’, ‘battalion’ and a couple of other words without, however, being able to translate the full inscription.

Trolley bus tour

Trolleybus in Chongjin

We drove back into the city centre for a tour on one of the old trolley buses that provide the main form of public transport here. We were told that although we couldn’t take photos of the city from our tour bus, we could from this one - without any reason for the difference in rules being given.


In the trolleybus
~ (taken by accompanying photographer from the tour company)

Most of us took advantage of this relaxation to take plenty of photos. I certainly did, as everything was fascinating - views of the steelworks, propaganda posters and mosaics, different building styles and more. So I apologise for the following flood of images!





Chonjin's mosaic tributes to the Great Leaders




Propaganda posters on the streets of Chongjin

There were noticeably fewer cars on the street than in Pyongyang, but loads of bicycles - it reminded me of Beijing when we first visited in the 1990s.


On the streets of Chongjin

One rule we had been given was not to photograph any military (naturally) and not to photograph any people who looked obviously poor or doing manual labour. But this is arguably a grey area, and certainly the temptation to interpret it quite loosely was strong, so the odd photo of an ox cart perhaps slipped in (more on that anon), as did some of the women employed in hand-painting the yellow lines along the middle of the road. Those ones, however, didn't make the final cut, as you will hear ...

Chongjin is a city of two halves, divided by the Sosong River, near which can be found much of the heavy industry that characterises the city.

Bridge over the Sosong

Industrial complexes near the river

We got off the trolley bus at one point to cross the road and take a different one back to our starting point near Chongjin’s main square, Pohanng Square.

Paying our respects

Once we were back in the square, we went to pay our respects to the Great Leaders before being permitted to take photos of the 25 foot high bronze statues – full length and from the front, as always.

The Chongjin leaders' statues

A bridal couple were there and were happy to let us take photos. We also watched a toddler being taken by her parents to lay flowers in front of the statues on her first birthday – a typically North Korean rite of passage, filmed by an accompanying photographer. All went well until the point when she realised that she had to leave the flowers behind and couldn’t keep them for herself, which rather upset her!

The bridal couple

The toddler's first time

Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten

From a one year old we went on to meet some of Chongjin’s five and six year olds at a local kindergarten, the Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten.

The Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten

This was, we were told, the best in the city, and visiting it was an amazing experience. We were welcomed by a teacher who would serve as our local guide, and asked to remove our shoes and put on a pair of what seemed to be a North Korean take on Crocs. I am not sure why this is thought necessary but was happy to comply – although I didn't feel exactly safe climbing the stairs in such ill-fitting shoes!

Our guide led us up those stairs which were decorated with plastic flowers, Disney-like animal paintings and incongruously alongside these, other paintings depicting ballistic missiles.

On the stairs


Firstly we went into one of the classrooms where a group of small children, all immaculately dressed and equally immaculately behaved, were learning about the traditional Korean turtle ships. These are generally recognised as the first armoured ships in the world and are therefore an historical achievement of which the North Koreans remain proud, even though their focus is mainly on more recent history. They were developed in the 15th century and used for several centuries in battles against the Japanese in particular. The name comes from the protective shell-like covering. The children repeated the teacher’s statements about the ships in chorus, learning by rote. It seemed a far cry indeed from the organised chaos of a UK infants class!


In the classroom

Achievement chart
~ I felt sorry for the child with no stars

Our group in the classroom
~ (taken by accompanying photographer from the tour company)

But the main event of our visit was a performance by some of the children. Most of those attending the kindergarten do so because they have been identified as having a particular talent and they are taught intensively to maximise these talents. The results are both impressive and slightly unnerving.

At the start of the performance

The opening number was Pangapsumnida, a very popular (and annoyingly infectious) North Korean ditty which we were to hear again on the last night of our trip - but more of that later.

We then watched a succession of perfectly drilled dancers, singers, and musicians in a series of ‘turns’.

Singers and dancers


Violinist and pianist

Playing the gayageum, a traditional Korean instrument

I hope my video gives some idea at least of the skill levels of all the performers - it's long, but I hope you'll take the time to watch at least some. I couldn’t help recalling the various primary school nativity plays I have seen at home in England which didn’t have even a fraction of the slickness we saw here.

I didn’t know whether to be impressed or slightly horrified, that children so young were trained so intensely. Did they enjoy it, I wondered? Some, such as the drummers, certainly appeared to do so, and I hoped all did, although some of the smiles seemed forced at times. But so cute!

‘Ox cart gate’

After the performance it was lunch time, and as we were by the coast there was a tasty seafood tortilla-style cake among the choices. But after the meal our lead Korean guide made an announcement, looking unusually solemn. A local person had reported seeing someone on our trolley bus, a man described as ‘over 60’, which covered most of those in our group, taking photos of an ox cart. There was a chance all our cameras could be searched at the airport so we should check and delete any photos like that, or others that might be considered disrespectful. Of course, we all (I think) immediately began to search through our photos for possible offenders, but it was hard to be sure in some cases what would or would not contravene the regulations. Some were easy – an ox cart was clearly out, as were any military personnel. But what about a street scene that included someone obviously not comfortably off? And did painting the yellow line on the road count as manual labour? Anyway, we did our best, while hoping not to be searched at the airport. And in the event we were not searched - maybe it was sufficient that our guides could tell the authorities that we had checked and deleted any forbidden shots?


After lunch, for a complete contrast, we went to a mushroom production facility! We saw the control room where temperature etc. is monitored to ensure the highest production levels; the small team of women inserting the spores into plastic bags of compost; and mushrooms at various stages of growth.

The control room

Inserting spores into the bags

Bags of compost with their spores

Starting to grow

We learned that it takes 45 days to grow the mushrooms and that they can get seven yields out of each bag of compost before discarding it. While not being wildly exciting the visit was moderately interesting, and the sculptural shapes of the fully-grown mushrooms were rather photogenic.

Our group by one of the sheds
~ (taken by accompanying photographer from the tour company)

Mushrooms in a climate controlled shed

It's surprising how beautiful mushrooms can be!

I later read in an old BBC news article [https://tinyurl.com/v4d2d5z] that in 2015 the DPRK introduced a large number of new slogans focused on food production, including the catchy:
'Let us turn ours into a country of mushrooms by making mushroom cultivation scientific, intensive and industrialised!'

The onsite kindergarten, with giant mushrooms!

In the air again

Once our tour had finished it was time to head back to Orang airport for our flight to the Mount Paektu region. We stopped off at the hotel en route to make use of their toilets, but with another group doing the same and only a couple of toilets available it took quite a while, so the drive to the airport became a bit of a mad dash along bumpy roads.

We checked our belongings through security, and as I mentioned above, didn’t have any cameras searched as we had expected they might be. We boarded the same plane (formerly used by Kim Il Sung) as we had flown here on yesterday, and made the short 30 minute flight to Samjiyon. No photos were allowed while in the air but we were told it was fine to take them after landing.




Arrival at Samjiyon Airport

Samjiyon Grand Monument

There was plenty of confusion as the several groups on board sorted out which bus was theirs, and we had a tight squeeze to fit ourselves and our luggage into the one allocated to our group. Then we were off, driving through pine forests as the sun started to set behind the trees. We were looking forward to reaching the hotel but as so often in North Korea we had one more stop to make, at Samjiyon Grand Monument.

Statue of Kim Il Sung, Samjiyon Grand Monument

And despite the fading light it was well worth it. The monument was built in May 1979 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a nearby battle with Japanese forces. Its centrepiece is a 15 metre tall bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, depicted as he would have been at that time, in his 20s. To his right stands a 50m-tall ‘torch tower’, and he is flanked on both sides with bronze and stone statues, primarily depicting the war.

After the obligatory bow at the foot of the statue we had a short time to take photos before it got really dark. The sun was setting over the lake behind the statue, so we didn’t see this impressive monument at its best, nor was it very easy to take photos. Kim Il Sung himself would have been better lit photographed from behind, with the setting sun making the bronze really glow, but that would be against the DPRK rules on photography of the Great Leaders (always front on and in full). I had to settle for images showing him in silhouette – although several of us spotted the German tourists, who’d been on our flight and also stopped here, taking photos from the side and rear in clear violation of those rules!


Sculptural groups

Sculpture detail, and torch tower

After taking what photos I could of the statue and other monuments (boosted later in post-editing to bring out the details that had been lost in the gloom), I followed some of the others down to the lakeshore. The colours of the sunset were at their best here and we could see Mt Paektu on the far side – our first sight of the mountain held so sacred by all Koreans, North and South.

Sunset and view of Mount Paektu

Statue of Kim Il Sung after sunset

From here we drove the short remaining distance to our hotel, the Pegaebong. This was large and quite basic but an improvement on previous night – our room was larger, there was hot water for 30 minutes morning and evening, we had a proper shower, but on the downside the usual too hard beds. Unusually for me, with my Virtual Tourist tip-writing 'training', I seem to have omitted to take any photos in our room!

The dining room at the Pegaebong Hotel

The dining room was rather grand, as in many of even the more basic hotels we stayed in (and indeed the not so basic), but the dinner wasn’t great, in fact the worst we’d had on the trip, so we supplemented it with snacks from the shop before an early night.

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.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:08 Archived in North Korea Tagged children food streets monument history statue hotel bus flight airport performance city factory dance industry school music farm photography street_photography war_and_peace kim_il_sung kim_jong_il chongjin samjiyon trolleybus

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


I am really enjoying this. As usual if feels like I was with you. The kids are definitely talented. Did you find out how common it was to have cameras checked?

by Bob Brink

Another impressive post, Sarah. On your video of the kindergarten performance, it seems to me there were many more girls than boys. Their movements and gestures reminded me of the mechanical musical instruments we saw last weekend in Bruchsal.

by Nemorino

Very interesting. I have been speculating about whether someone could have a complete blow-up body pillow (like the neck pillows sometimes we have on airplanes) to ameliorate the hard beds. Or maybe a blow up pillow topper for the mattress.

by greatgrandmaR

Amazed by the mushrooms. I had mushroom farmers in my family and when my Dad retired he went to work with them peddling mushrooms to local restaurants and private homes. But those are amazing looking.

by littlesam1

The performance was interesting. I suspect the kids really enjoy doing their various things. When a little kid is good at something (like the little piano player), they tend to enjoy doing it and are self critical enough to constantly try to improve. I had students whose parents actually tried to get them to practice less and the kids couldn't understand it because they thought they were having fun. It only seemed like work to Mom and Dad because it would have been work for them.

by Beausoleil

It's a great story, Sarah, with impressive description and photographs...The inscription on the monument to Soviet sailors reads, "To the heroic sailors who fell in the battles for the liberation of Seisun from Japanese imperialists".

by Vic_IV

Wow, thanks for all the nice comments everyone!

Bob, we weren't told how common it was to have cameras checked, only that it happens (and I know of friends who've confirmed that) and that having been reported as a 'misbehaving group' the chances were greater that ours would be picked out. The main regular culprit in our group stayed on for an extra two days in Pyongyang at the end of the tour so we have no idea if he was picked up specifically, as he should have been based on his behaviour!

Don, I see just what you mean about those mechanical instruments! There were indeed more girls than boys but I think I also focused more on them (literally as well as figuratively!) because I loved the dresses :)

Rosalie, it might help to travel with something like that but we had to travel very light on our flights to and around the north of the country so it would probably only help for some of the hotels. My solution was to lie on any spare pillows, blankets etc I could find - not ideal but it helped.

Larry, I believe these are some sort of oyster mushroom, which explains the interesting shapes. It wasn't the most fascinating of the tours we had on the trip but finding these beautiful patterns gave me something productive to do!

Sally, yes, I do think they enjoyed what they did, but I suspect they are drilled to a degree that it could become too much for some. For so many of them to be that good so young, it must feel like a chore at times?

And Vic, thanks so much for the translation

by ToonSarah

As fascinating reading as the previous ones habe been!
Little bit awkward to see so much make-up on so young children..but I bet that those girls love the dresses, they are so beautiful color!
What make the meal so bad, what did you eat?

by hennaonthetrek

Thanks Henna! I agree about the make-up. I was really bewildered when I saw the kids in the classroom wearing lipstick, even the boys! But after we saw the performance realised they were probably already made-up ready for a show, or perhaps had performed for another tourist group earlier, before we came.

I don't remember exactly what was in that meal, just that the choice was poor and there were fewer things on the table that I fancied than usual. And it wasn't that I was being fussy - my husband was hungry afterwards too and he's the opposite of a fussy eater!

by ToonSarah

As a small child, my grandfather rechristened me "Whyvonne" because of all the questions I asked. I would have found it so frustrating if there was no answer as to WHY you could take photos of one thing but not another - when there no obvious reason for the difference between the two. I was amazed at the talents of the young children - mainly because of wondering how much of their school time do they have to spend entertaining foreign tourists rather than learning but obviously they have to work so very hard to be as accomplished as they were. A country of so many such anomalies - but so very many thanks to you Sarah for introducing us to them.

by Yvonne Dumsday

Hi Whyonne There was an answer to why we couldn't photograph certain things (or go to certain places, or do certain things) and it's summed up in the title of this blog entry - 'in our country we do this / don't do that' ;)

by ToonSarah

Yes Sarah, I did realize that but, as you said, "that ‘in our country’ logic means little when it comes to applying the rules." For example - outside the hotel lobby (where, first you couldn't and then you could) and you could take photos from the trolley bus but not from your tour bus and one person being stopped from taking a photo of a cart being pulled by an oxen, but not of one being pulled by a man. I do like logic and reasons for decisions. Hey ho!

by yvonne Dumsday

Exactly - there is an answer, just not one that we find logical. I suspect that 'in our country' is the easy answer from their point of view and that underneath it there is usually some sort of basis for the rule. For instance, our trolley bus went along a short stretch of road, so what we might photograph was controlled to some extent, whereas the bus ride from the airport, while including that road, was much longer and also went through a largely rural area. Maybe it was easier for our young guide to say 'no photos' than to specify where it was or wasn't allowed? Or maybe they thought that as the windows of the bus were grubby we wouldn't get any decent photos ;)

by ToonSarah

All eminently acceptable suppositions Sarah. Thankyou.

by yvonne Dumsday

It's always easier to say "No you can't do that" than it is to figure out the parameters that would allow someone to say Yes. Particularly when a partial yes is given which allows obstreperous people to argue about it and say "Well you didn't say that I couldn't photograph an oxen, only that we couldn't photograph poor people" Getting specific about something allows more weasel room. (Like in my first pregnancy I had a book called "Expectant Motherhood" which said that in the latter stages of pregnancy I should no longer be having sex with my husband. When I asked the doctor he laughed and said that sounded like I could have sex with the mailman or anyone I liked, just not with my husband.

by greatgrandmaR

I think that's definitely true Rosalie - apart from the bit about the mailman And we for sure had one argumentative person in the group who would have quibbled exactly as you describe!

by ToonSarah

I noticed in the Chongjin photos you don't see as many women in traditional dress compared to Pyongyang. I suspect the reason they don't want you to photograph ox carts is because of its association with poorer South East Asian countries. The image is tied in to the idea of a country being third world. The boat one is curious though. The only thing I can think of is they might be private fishing boats and therefore displays the DPRK tipping their toe into capitalism.

As for the child performers to be honest it is pretty typical of East Asia to push kids to the limit. Some of the highest rates of teenage depression are from countries like Japan and South Korea. The highly stylised performances including the thick layers of make up are in line with traditional East Asian theatre which to a lot of Western audiences who are use to realism find it artificial and disconcerting.

by Teoni

Hi Teoni. You're right about the traditional dress - I only remember seeing one during our time in Chongin and our guide said that she was some sort of council official overseeing that everything in the city was functioning well. Partly it would be a case of levels of poverty here - those dresses aren't cheap. Also, many of the women we saw wearing them in Pyongyang were doing so as their work 'uniform', in their role as guides. But also remember that we were in Pyongyang at the time of the national holiday so a lot of ordinary women were dressed in their best, and the same for those visiting the Palace of the Sun and the Great Leaders' statues.

We were told by our Korean guide that the ox cart issue was because they have a plan to mechanise farming across the country and it doesn't look good to show that they haven't yet achieved this. They seem to feel they risk looking as if they are behind every other country in that respect and we couldn't explain to them that to us it is normal for that part of the world - or perhaps they want to seem better than normal, as you suggest! And good theory about the boats. We thought it was just that they looked old and scruffy, but you could be right - although they also all looked pretty much the same which would suggest they were state-owned rather than private?

by ToonSarah

I share your concern about the intensive training of such young children. Discipline is a good thing, but too much of it can be quite another. That said, they did seem to be enjoying it all.

by Easymalc

Hi Malcolm - yes, they did seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, on the whole, and I've been told by other people that this intensive training isn't unique to North Korea, it is common all over this region - see Teoni's comment above :)

by ToonSarah

this would be very hard for me to take pictures "on command" like I prefer to call it. This for me is a bit too tough at the moment to listen. I know you have to do it out of respect for the people but still, it is a bit ridiculous if you ask me.

by Ils1976

It's not only about respect for the people Ils. The regime is very sensitive, perhaps surprisingly, to how the rest of the world sees their country and doesn't want photos circulated that risk showing it in a bad light, including anything that suggests that they are 'behind' other countries in their development of technology, care of their people etc. If a tourist over-steps the mark they won't get anything worse than a request to delete the photo, but the guide who didn't stop them taking it could lose their job, for instance, so the main driver for me in sticking to the rules was to protect our lovely guide and make her life easier. Seen like that it seems less challenging than it would elsewhere to follow the rules :)

by ToonSarah

maybe so, I still think it is a strange country. From tomorrow one, we have the show of Michael Paling visiting North Korea. I am definitely going to watch since you mentioned him in your blog. I feel a bit inspired although I sometimes have my questions about the Supreme leader to be honest, but than again, he isn't the only one ... if you look at the orange man (like some of them call him on facebook) it says enough! ;) ;) ;)

by Ils1976

Yes, do watch that series :) When he visits the Juche Tower you may notice that he has the same guide as we did, and he eats his birthday meal in the restaurant we visited in Wonsan!

by ToonSarah

I saw the first episode and he went into the tower. Was your guide Soon-young?

I must admit reading your blog and his comments as well, it makes it for a more than interesting destination. I keep it in mind for sure! :)

by Ils1976

No, I'm not talking about his main guide but the one who showed him around the tower (in my photo in my entry about our visit up there). I've been advised not to name our two main guides to reduce the chance of them being blamed if I've said anything I shouldn't have done in these blog entries, although having had them vetted by Carl they should be OK - it's just an extra precaution.

by ToonSarah

I am going to have a second look at it. I still have the episode, thanks for mentioning! :)

by Ils1976

Certainly the rules around photography can be confusing, especially in the north eastern part of the country which is less visited by tourists and really only open to westerners for around 10 years now. It seems that random camera checking nowadays is mostly limited to the train at the Chinese border town of Sinuiju. I otherwise suspect that camera checking is more targeted these days based on public or guide reports. The Statue of Kim Il Sung/ Samjiyon Grand Monument is amazing and it is such a pity I did not get there.

by Wabat

Our camera checking was certainly based on public reports! Yes, the Samjiyon Grand Monument is incredibly impressive, although I was frustrated that we visited it when the light was so bad. Of course from the rear the statue was beautifully lit by the setting sun, but photos from there were forbidden :(

by ToonSarah

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.