DPRK (and Beijing) Day sixteen
15.09.2019 - 15.09.2019
Masikryong Ski Resort
After a good night’s sleep in our comfortable room at the Masikryong Ski Resort, and a reasonable breakfast, we set off for a day’s sightseeing in and around Wonsan. It was a pleasant drive of about 40 minutes through the mountains to the coast. We parked in the same place we had stopped two days ago for lunch, and walked past the small harbour where young boys and a few older men were fishing.
Fishing in Wonsan
Our first stop was at an art shop on the sea front, which had an interesting mix of works on sale, from small watercolours to very large oil paintings depicting a range of scenes from landscapes through cute animals and oriental scenes to epic North Korean subjects such as construction projects and military scenes.
Entrance to the art shop
No photos were allowed unfortunately, but a search for DPRK art online will give you an idea of the variety of subjects and styles. One thing you won’t find, however, is any very modern or abstract art – everything is representational and fairly traditional. Chris and I bought a small watercolour on rice paper of a bird, possibly a crane, which took my fancy, and several others in the group made purchases. Most chose landscapes, flower or animal subjects, but one, Dave, fell for a large print of a more ‘only in North Korea’ subject, a construction site (much to his wife Sue’s dismay!). He’s since sent me a photo of it framed and hanging on his dining room wall, and I have his permission to include it here.
Songdowon International Schoolchildren’s Camp
We then drove a short distance through a park where locals were out enjoying their Sunday day off to the Songdowon International Schoolchildren’s Camp which, while it might not sound especially worth visiting, was, like many places in North Korea, unexpectedly interesting. The camp caters to secondary school children and accommodates 1,000 at a time on stays of ten days. We were told that the aim is for the children to enjoy a holiday while also learning. The camp takes some foreign children, in early August, most (but not all) of them from Russia, hence the use of ‘international’ in its name.
Plan of the camp
Detail from the plan
While there are a number of such camps in the country this one is, by all accounts, the most prestigious; to be chosen to visit it is a real honour accorded only the most hard-working and successful students from, I suspect, the families with the highest songbun. This is a system of ascribed status whereby, based on the political, social and economic background of your direct ancestors and the actions of family members, it is determined by the authorities whether you are given opportunities in areas such as education, employment and housing.
Some of the lucky few
~ on a tour of the facilities before settling in
We met some of the children, including a group of ethnic Koreans visiting from Japan, one of whom had recently visited London and spoke enough English for a brief conversation about it before she was whisked away.
I think these labels on the trees are intended to help them learn English
~ but they must think we have a lot of different names for trees!
We toured the remarkable range of facilities which included an aquarium, aviary, water park, cinema/performance hall, sports field …
The water park
The performance hall
In the aquarium we donned fetching grey corduroy slip-ons to protect the floor from our outdoor shoes and saw fish and reptiles in tanks, some of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a well-kept zoo. There were educational posters on the walls covering topics such as erosion as well as one with a rather scary image of a tsunami!
Turtle in the aquarium
Posters in the aquarium
I was less impressed in the aviary where the birds were living in very small enclosures. Although some of them seem to be comfortable enough in their accommodation – some of us spotted that the lovebirds were obliging with a very 'educational' performance!
Our guide told us that this was ‘change-over day’ so most of the children were touring the camp in groups, being introduced to their temporary home and its wonders, rather than making use of the facilities. But at the sports field we saw a group on the far side watching some of the girls participate in a bout of ssireum, the traditional Korean form of wrestling. This is similar to Japanese sumo, and is practiced as both a combat sport and for self-defence.
A bout of ssireum
Between the two main accommodation blocks are the obligatory statues of the Leaders. But here they are a little different from usual, depicting them surrounded by adoring children.
The Leaders' statues
Our North Korean guide mentioned that the group of youngsters in green uniforms, having their photo taken here, were members of a youth organisation for children who have lost one or both parents through military service.
~ with children in uniform
Carl later told me that they were most likely from a Revolutionary School. There are a small number of these elite schools in the country. Those chosen to study at these schools are historically children whose parent(s) died while serving in the Armed Forces, as our guide had said, giving the children a high status. Some very bright children and those of high-ranking party officials also study at these schools, which provide military training alongside academic lessons. The most famous example is the Red Flag Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang (near the birthplace of Kim Il Sung).
Outside an accommodation block
We went into one of the accommodation blocks where we saw the really rather nice rooms that they share, looking very much like a children’s hotel room! No prizes for guessing that we were looking at a girls' room, by the way!
We were shown a large globe here which, we were told, had once been used by Kim Jong Il. One thing that struck all of us was that the style of décor everywhere would not have appealed to that age group of children back home - it seemed much too childish and twee, more suitable for a seven year old or even younger.
In the accommodation block
~ computer desks, wall decorations, and the globe used by Kim Jong Il
As we left the block we encountered an ice cream seller and all pounced, eager to buy a treat as we very rarely got anything sweet at meals in North Korea. My pineapple lolly was delicious and refreshing!
Apple farming in North Korea
After our visit to the schoolchildren’s camp we drove back into the centre of Wonsan where we had a leisurely lunch at one of the hotels.
Then it was back into the bus for a one hour drive out of town to a new ‘attraction' recently opened to tourists, which none of our guides (North Korean or UK) had yet visited – Kosan Fruit Farm, an apple farm!
Some photos taken on the road
Like many of the visits we went on in Korea this was again surprisingly interesting, mainly for the scale of this state-run farm, which is the largest fruit farm in the country. How many farms elsewhere have their own iron fence making factory?! Or viewing platforms from which tourists can properly appreciate the wonders of the operation? To get a sense of its size, search for 'Kosan' on Google Maps and look at the fields to the north east of the station
Arriving at the apple farm
Panorama from the viewing platform
New workers' homes
Workers' homes - not so new!
Propaganda poster on the farm
Propaganda poster on the farm
We were given various facts and figures about apple production, most of which I didn’t take in because I was too busy taking photos. But I did gather that the apples grown here are developed in North Korea from better-known foreign varieties and that this is the biggest such farm in the country.
View of a small part of the farm
We had a chance to pick and try the apples. I was a little wary of what seemed to be a liberal spraying of pesticide, but gave mine a good polish and a rinse with some water, and I have to say it tasted good - perhaps especially because we had had very little fruit during our tour. However we were slightly taken aback to be charged for the apples after re-boarding the bus as we had assumed we were being given them as a sample (as had our guides). But they weren’t expensive so we didn’t mind paying.
Our last visit of the day was to the Mangyongbong-92, a cargo-passenger ship built in 1992 using funding from Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, to mark the 80th birthday of Kim Il Sung (I have mentioned before what special presents the Great Leaders tend to receive!) It was named for the hill above the village where he was born, Mangyongdae, which we had visited while in Pyongyang.
Chongryon is a Japanese organisation affiliated with the DPRK that supports ethnic Koreans living in Japan. Under Japanese occupation many Koreans were transported to Japan as forced labourers and many stayed on after liberation. After the Korean War these ethnic Koreans had to choose whether to affiliate themselves to the North or the South, depending on their political leanings as much as their geographical origins. Chongryon supports those who opted for the North while another organisation, Mindan, supports those who affiliated with the South.
On board the Mangyongbong-92
The Mangyongbong-92 was provided by Chongryon to bring its members to the DPRK on visits to relatives, and also carried cargo (typically electronics, medical devices, and foreign-made manufactured goods). It used to make the 28-hour voyage between Wonsan and Niigata in Japan once or twice a month, and could carry up to 218 passengers and 1,000 tonnes of cargo. After relations soured between the two countries in 2006 all sailings ceased, as Japan banned all North Korean ships from entering their waters. The ship has been moored in Wonsan ever since, with only occasional sailings. One of these was to take the North Korean team to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018. The North Koreans have also experimented with offering cruises along the coast to foreign tourists, but Carl told us that these haven’t really been successful – mainly because tour operators were given far too short notice to be able to arrange itineraries around them.
View from the deck
Our tour took in one deluxe and several first class cabins, the bridge, several of the decks (with lifeboats), a small cinema and the shop.
First class cabin (left) and state room (above
We met and were introduced to the captain on the bridge. He seemed happy to see us – I guess it’s a fairly boring life captaining a ship that never goes anywhere!
The captain, and radar equipment
We finished at one of the ship's bars where we could buy drinks. It was a slightly bizarre experience, as are so many in North Korea, to be sitting enjoying a beer on a ship that has been more or less grounded for 13 years!
Russian beer in the bar, and body wash in the ladies
And talking of bizarre, have a look at the English name on the body wash in the ladies!
I spotted some ladies enjoying the Sunday evening with dancing in the strip of park alongside the water. While some claim that scenes like this are sometimes staged for tourists in Pyongyang's Moranbong Park, that was clearly not the case here. This is a genuine image of North Koreans relaxing together, as a counter to those claims.
In a Wonsan park
The Great Leaders
When we left the ship I asked our Korean guide for permission to photograph the statues of the Leaders I could see a little distance along the river bank. My intention had been to use my zoom lens but she seemed pleased at my interest and suggested we walk along to see them. I also asked about the landscape pictured behind them but all she could tell me was that it was typical scenery of this region – she wasn’t sure if it was a specific location.
The Great Leaders' statues, Wonsan
As a change from the usual routine, we stayed on in Wonsan to have a barbecue dinner on the beach. Koreans love to barbecue, and this was a chance to see how they do it, as well as to enjoy a pre-dinner paddle as the sun set over the city.
Sunset at Wonsan beach
We ate squid, lamb and duck cooked (by restaurant staff brought in for the occasion) on grills over large pots set in the middle of the low tables. We sat on mats on the ground to eat - a challenge for some, including me, but we all managed. As a bonus an orange moon rose over the new buildings by the airport on the opposite side of the bay.
Preparing our beach BBQ
Wonsan beach BBQ
Moonrise over Wonsan beach
After dinner we drove back to Masikryong in the dark and had a relaxing couple of hours in our room before bedtime.
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 the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.