DPRK (and Beijing) Day fourteen
13.09.2019 - 13.09.2019
Final flight on 'our' Ilyushin Il-18D
This morning we had our last flight on Kim Il Sung’s former private aircraft, so after checking out of the hotel straight after breakfast we drove to the airport at Samjiyon. There was a queue to go through security and unfortunately we were near the end, which meant waiting outside where it was pretty chilly. I was amused by the sign indicating that the loo was somewhere down a forest path - although had I needed to use it I may have been less amused, from all accounts!
Boarding the Ilyushin Il-18D
Sign at Samjiyon Airport
Once on board we had a short flight of around an hour to Wonsan, with nice views of the mountains on take-off and the coast as we came into land, although as on previous flights photography from the plane was not permitted.
Wonsan Kalma International Airport
Wonsan’s International Airport delivered another of those surreal ‘only in North Korea’ experiences – a glitzy but surreally empty new airport, built for international flights that never come! It opened four years ago but is yet to receive a single international flight. In fact it has so far had no domestic flights either, apart from charter flights bringing tourists (and very occasionally Koreans) to this less-visited part of the country. The day we landed here ours was the only arrival, and the only departure was the same plane taking off again to continue its journey to Pyongyang. Most of the passengers were staying on board - I think we were the only group to alight.
Just one arrival
No need for ticketing!
The international terminal opened in 2015. It has two jet-bridges and a newly designed apron that could accommodate twelve commercial aircraft at any one time. Needless to say that apron was deserted today. The airport is sometimes used by military aircraft but I assumed none were here today or we would not have been allowed, nay encouraged, to take these photos. Although having said that, Carl has since told me he did spot a few fighter jets from the plane as we landed, tucked away in hangers.
Empty apron and runway
The airport was built to serve the new hotel complex being constructed at the behest of Kim Jong Un to create a new surge in tourism to the region, as he sees it as a potential beach resort. But while it has good beaches, Wonsan currently lacks the other infrastructure required to build a tourist economy, and the restrictions currently placed on independent travel and exploration in the DPRK make it seem unlikely to me that they will attract the tourist numbers needed to justify the expense of building such a large airport and providing the many thousands of hotel beds planned. The most likely market would be China, but even then some relaxation of the ‘go nowhere without a guide’ might be needed – maybe through the creation of an enclosed hotels and beach zone within which tourists can move freely? As this is a pet project of Kim Jong Un’s, who spent childhood summers on this coast (see https://www.38north.org/2019/01/wonsan011619/, which has some interesting ‘before and after’ photos of the hotel developments), no doubt they will find a way to make it work.
One of the shops opened just for us
We took our time looking around the airport, enjoying a coffee in coffee shop clearly opened for our sole benefit and picking up some souvenirs and gifts in the well-stocked shop, also presumably opened just for the duration of our visit.
The deserted upper floor
On the upper floors they hadn’t even bothered to open the various refreshment counters, further consolidating the impression that I was wandering through some sort of dystopian SF film in which everyone in the world has been killed apart from a single protagonist – an impression strengthened when for a while I found myself the only person from our group on that floor! Just for a moment I panicked slightly, thinking everyone might have left without me, but then I recollected that no North Korean guide would allow that to happen as the penalties of leaving a tourist unsupervised must be harsh.
The main entrance
Development in Wonsan, from the airport
Lunch in Wonsan
From the airport we drove into the centre of Wonsan for lunch, passing the Mangyongbong-92 ferry at its mooring. This ship once made the crossing regularly between North Korea and Japan, but with relationships between the two not exactly warm, all crossings have been suspended since 2006. Our guide mentioned that we would see the ship properly when we visited Wonsan in two days’ time.
Quiet streets in Wonsan
The Mangyongbong-92 ferry
We also spotted the plane we had arrived on taking off for its onward flight to Pyongyang - the only departure from the airport today.
Flight taking off
We had lunch at the tourist restaurant, Kalmaegi – one of the best meals we’d had for a while, with very good squid, eggs and chips, among other dishes.
Carl told me that Michael Palin had eaten his birthday meal here when on his visit to North Korea - a visit which in part triggered our own decision to visit, although the country had been on my wish-list for a couple of years prior to the programme being aired.
For sale in the restaurant
~ most of the North Korean restaurants we visited had food for sale in the entrance area
After lunch we drove north to Hamhung, through some very scenic countryside – vivid lime green paddy fields, wooded hills, lots of maize growing too. The roads were lined with the usual cosmos flowers and the countryside was dotted with small villages of houses in the traditional style and the more recently traditional propaganda posters.
On the road to Hamhung
We stopped for a comfort break at a roadside restaurant with a natural spring ornamented by the animal sculptures so popular here.
Arriving in Hamhung we parked in the centre and had a walk along a street that passed a large restaurant specialising in noodles (or so we were told), a specialist electronics library and the revolutionary museum. We were followed all the way by a couple of young boys who had watched us get off our bus. The braver one of the two had even greeted us in English, ‘Welcome to our country’, and agreed to be photographed! We were to see this curiosity and openness elsewhere in the city too, with little children peering at us and older ones giving shy smiles or perhaps a cautious wave – very different from ‘cosmopolitan’ Pyongyang or rather weary Chongjin.
Welcome to Hamhung
Our walk led us to the attractive small park in front of the statues of the Great Leaders where of course we paid our respects, lining up to bow, before taking our photos.
Great Leaders' statues
Our guide then led us to the nearby Kumchon Pavilion with good views over the city. This pavilion was first built in 1108 to serve as a command post in wartime and a watch tower in peacetime. It was rebuilt in 1613.
The Kumchon Pavilion
We were met here by a local guide who gave us a talk (translated by our own guide) about the statues and some aspects of the city. Everything here, we gathered, was done either at the instigation of one of the Great Leaders, or out of respect to them. We learned that Kim Il Sung visited Hamhung on 90 occasions and gave guidance at I don’t remember how many sites, while Kim Jong Il came 110 times and gave guidance at over 400 sites!
The guide also told us that after the revolution, the people of Hamhung chopped down all the cherry trees on this spot because they had been planted by the Japanese, but when Kim Il Sung came and saw what they had done he was upset and said that the trees were innocent. He declared that a park should be created here for all the people to enjoy, and his statue was later placed here in gratitude. The statue of his son was added after he died, as elsewhere in the country.
Great Leaders' statues from the Kumchon Pavilion
Hamhung is an industrial city; its factories were first established by the Japanese who saw the potential of its location on the coast, and were taken over by the local people after the revolution. They were badly damaged by US bombing during the Korean War (according to our guide, there was nothing left but dust) but were rebuilt again by the people. When Kim Il Sung visited he was pleased that they had done this but concerned about the effects of air pollution on the citizens. He didn’t want the people to suffer so he studied issues of air pollution and that is why there is no air pollution in Hamhung today. Hard to believe when you see the number of chemical factories, perhaps, but that is what we were assured.
View from the Kumchon Pavilion
One thing you quickly learn when visiting North Korea is that all three of the Kims were/are experts in many matters, and offering what is usually referred to as 'field guidance' wherever they travel(led) in the country. Air pollution, mushroom production, airport construction, weaponry (naturally), farming methods, road-building ... All is within their compass of knowledge, not to mention penning the odd opera! One reason for this can be found in a saying attributed to Kim Il Sung:
'The leader of a country can administer correct politics only when he becomes a smelter when he goes to an iron works, a fisherman when he puts to sea, and a farmer when he visits the countryside.'
Returning to the bus we drove through the city, with photography from the bus windows permitted.
On the streets of Hamhung
We stopped in a large square to see the impressive Hamhung Grand Theatre, the largest in the country. It was built in 1984 and, we were told, has two halls - one seating 700 and one 2,000. Entry isn’t permitted unless attending an opera, almost always of the Revolutionary variety. A shame, as it sounds pretty spectacular inside.
Hamhung Grand Theatre
We drove out of the city to the beach suburb of Majon, passing several factories on the way, including the Hungnam fertiliser factory, which was first established here by the Japanese in 1927 and reopened by the Koreans after having been destroyed in the Korean War. We were scheduled to visit this on the following morning but it was closed for refurbishment. While that may not sound like disappointing news, the fertiliser factory is a popular stop on tours of Hamhung – officially because it represents the DPRK’s pride in its production processes and ambitions to increase agricultural outputs (Kim Il Sung on a visit here famously said, ‘Fertiliser is rice. And rice itself is communism’), and unofficially because rumours abound that it is not only fertiliser that is produced here but also some of the chemicals needed for the country’s nuclear programme. Having been denied the opportunity to visit I am in no position to say whether those rumours are true – and had we been able to visit I am confident I would not have been any the wiser on the subject, as I’m sure it would not have been mentioned by either ourselves or our guides!
Hamhung Fertiliser Factory
A stay by the sea
We had been scheduled to stay at the rather nice (or so I believe) Majon Hotel, but Carl and our Korean guide had been informed earlier in the tour that this was closed to tourists (for unexplained reasons) and we were instead to go to the nearby Majon Tourist Hotel, a very different kettle of fish despite the similarity of name! They had therefore rejigged our itinerary to reduce our stay in Hamhung from two nights to one, and when we saw our accommodation we were grateful for this, as it definitely fell into the ‘basic’ category. On the plus side we had slightly softer beds than usual on this trip, and we could hear the sea from our room. On the downside, we didn’t have an en suite bathroom (it was across the hall) and that bathroom had no running water at all, hot or cold. Instead we had a bath full of water to last us our stay, a bowl with which to scoop it up, and a plastic tub also filled with water which we could heat with a plug-in immersion heater - an arrangement which would surely not have passed any health and safety inspections back home!
I was clearly so bemused by the whole set-up that I omitted to take any photos of our bedroom!
We used the time before dinner to sort out our luggage, having been reunited with our main bag on arriving at Wonsan. The meal had the usual mix of nice (coleslaw, potato, noodles) and not so nice (soup that tasted of seawater).
We stayed for an extra beer in the small bar in the lobby, before walking back to our ‘villa’ by torchlight and to the sound of the waves on the shore.
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays 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.