Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

North Korea VI – Hamhung & Around   

– Sixth report of an eight-part series on my August 2015 visit to North Korea. –

On the Way to the East

We leave Pyongyang behind. We head south and pass the Arch of Reunification again. I get my camera ready; I want to take a picture of the place where the people have to push their bikes through the stream. We change on the highway to the East. We take a break at a small lake, on the toilet is a sign of times long gone. A towel of the tourist region Kumgangsan. One of the projects established during the contacts under the Sunshine Policy it concerned one of the most beautiful spots on the Korean peninsula, Mount Kumgang, the Diamond Mountain. Located just at the inner-Korean border, South Korean tourists could get a feel of the North in the resort opened by Hyundai in 2002. The DPRK profited from additional income. But in 2008, a South Korean tourist was shot. In the South Korean version of events, she had lost her way and was murdered mercilessly. In the North Korean version, she was a spy and entered a military area on purpose. Miss Kim presents us with the neutral story that the Koreas agree that they don’t know what happened. Fact is, the lady was dead and with her the whole project.

We witness an involuntary political joke. We are being prepared for a ride of several hours, I ask if we can speed things up by going Chollima speed and the reply is that “then, there will be an accident”. North Korea in one sentence. Chollima is a winged horse from Chinese mythology. It is too fast to be mounted by a human rider. The Chollima movement was the North Korea variation of the Soviet Stakhanovite movement or the Chinese “Great Leap Forward”. A giant effort with the aim to speed up economic development by mostly people working until total exhaustion because of the great goals they had in mind for society. Today the national football team is called Chollima and Chollima-speed is a metaphor for any overfullfillment of plans. And at Chollima-speed, more often than not, a catastrophe follows.

We will be on the road for six hours. Our western guide is checking his e-mails. Yes, you read correctly. Checking his e-mails, on a phone, deep inside North Korea. In connection with the Ryugyong hotel, I have already written that the Egyptian company Orascom started to build a mobile phone network in 2008. Koryolink proved quite successful. Permission was needed to own a mobile phone but nonetheless three million North Koreans signed up and the project even created a surplus. That does not mean that any of these North Koreans had access to the internet, no one of them had. The North Korean network was not linked with any other network so people were also not able to talk to foreign countries but at least they could talk with other North Koreans. With a smartphone they even had access to the Kwangmyong national intranet service. That is estimated to have between 1,000 and 5,500 websites (all censored and supervised) and is not accessible from outside North Korea. North Korea produces its own mobile phone and its own android laptop. But I am very surprised that a foreigner working in North Korea can really access the internet. Probably it helps that Rowan is one of the higher-ups at Young Pioneer Tours. Usually, they send interns on these trips but this year is different as North Korea was effectively closed (21-day-quarantine) in early 2015 because of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Rowan even has a Kim pin. Many North Koreans are wearing a pin on their chest with the head of one or even two Kims. You cannot buy these pins; you receive them for your achievements. People seem to wear the pin all the time (just look at the pictures), creating an instant distinction between people of good standing and people of questionable allegiance. 

We tourists do not have any option to access the internet. My only way to communicate with the outside world would be an expensive phone call from the hotel (the one in Pyongyang only) or an equally expensive e-mail send from a hotel computer. To surf the internet or even to receive e-mails is not possible even there. I have never been cut off from family, friends and all the outside world in such a way before. At least in Pyongyang there was, to my surprise, international TV at the hotel: CNN, BBC, TV 5 Monde, but I wasn’t even really interested, too immersed in North Korea to care about the outside world. As I was to learn after my return, the mobile phone project is not that successful anymore, depends on your perspective actually, for the North Korean side it works perfectly, but for the Egyptian side it does not work at all. The project turned a surplus after some years but Orascom was just not allowed to take any money out of the country. And North Korea started to build a second network. In the autumn of 2016, Orsacom declared that they had effectively lost control over their North Korean endeavour and completely wrote down their investment.

The landscape is beautiful, becoming ever more mountainous as we reach the highest ridge of the Korean peninsula. We stop for lunch at beautiful Ulim waterfall. Our itinerary said that we could take a swim there. Now, they are not so sure anymore but the moment we get there one of the guys just jumps into the water, some others (including me) are following. A few minutes later some overseer arrives and tells us to get out of the water. Shortly later, we sit on the deck of a concrete ship with a view of the waterfall and have a picknick. Next to us is a group of North Koreans having the same, they even have a barbeque. There is plenty of food, a car battery powers a music box. Is that real? Are they there on their own accord? We had seen more groups sitting together but this one seems especially well-supplied with everything, has music and is really just besides us. The discussion begins. The majority is certain that this must be staged. It was clear that we would have a picknick here and so we meet our pre-planned we-have-a-good-life-and-are-happy North Koreans. An extra ration of food from the local party official and the propaganda picknick is ready to go. I am not sure. It could be staged, that is possible. But it could also be real, life in North Korea will not all be misery all the time. Why shouldn’t it be possible that a few of the suppressed are well organized, are taking a trip and have their picknick? Not every North Korean is a marionette of the Kims, but people who make their own decisions (within a severely limited range that is). I will never find out what is true but our trip will at some point provide a strong hint. Some people in our group try to get in touch with them, the sole American in our sister group introduces himself with “hello, I am an American bastard” that he has learned to say in Korean. This is less an insult but rather a common way to describe an American. Another hot topic during the meal: The mistreatment of a horse. I didn’t see it but others report that some men mercilessly beat a horse on the roadside. Without any discernible sense. I fear that does not only happen to horses in this country.


Collective Farm

We come to more populated areas again. I am glad we have left Pyongyang. What we see now is noticeably poorer, even less cars but more bikes and many pedestrians. There is visibly more propaganda around. Our driver takes a wrong turn, I think it would not be appreciated to help him out with the navigation of my mobile phone. We finally arrive at a model collective farm. We stop at the central square and find the house of culture, a propaganda column with a depiction of the “secret base camp” on the pedestal, there is the shop, depictions of two decorations received by the collective farm, a few more propaganda posters and a mural of a famous on-the-spot-guidance. Kim Il-sung is standing in a golden yellow rice field, looks into the distance and raises an arm to shield his eyes from the bright sun. Next to him his son and a happy farming couple. Even how to grow rice, the leader knows best. The guide starts with the visits of the leaders, different Kims have graced the farm with eight visits, respect. The farm is operating 500 something hectares with a workforce of 1500 people. In Germany, this area would be farmed by ten people. The shop is surreal. Some biscuits and sweets, some lemonade, some soju, a few pieces of fruit, plastic buckets, cutlery. On the other side shoes, inflatable animals for children, some cosmetics, watches, exercise books, pens and a corner with clothes. All looks extremely arranged and the shelves seem to have been built extra “flat” so that you don’t have to put much in to make it look full. I wouldn’t be surprised if you would step into that shop four weeks later and exactly nothing would have changed. I ask myself if things are actually sold or just decoration. There is one corner though where the shop seems to be alive. Rice, flour and a few other basic foodstuffs can be loosely taken from permanently installed boxes.    

We visit the kindergarten. The kids are outside and play, there is a slide and a small carrousel. A happy tank in the corner prepares them for the future. The kids behave like kids behave, they run around, they laugh, some are a bit shy. They like the frisbee. I do think that we are not the first foreigners they see. Inside the building is a small and dirty pool, two rooms with a cute array of matrasses and a playing room. At one side of that room is a hospital area. A bed with a doll, small doctor’s overalls, bandages and a syringe. Not a toy syringe, a real one with a real metal needle. What the fuck? Learning by doing, this seems to be. The upper floor has five rooms for instruction. Two of them look like normal classrooms. Small tables, small chairs, a whiteboard, above it the usual leader images. In one corner is a TV, in the other a carefully covered keyboard. The other three rooms are a shock. The first is dedicated to Kim Il-sung. At the wall are 20 images, 19 from his childhood and the last one shows the eternal president as we all know him surrounded by Magnolia flowers (the national flower). In the middle of the room is a model of his birth house, the one we visited in Pyongyang. Around the model small chairs. This is where the little ones get the first strong dose of propaganda into their heads before they can even read or write. The next room, yes, you guessed correctly is dedicated to Kim Jong-il and follows the same pattern. Pictures on the wall, model in the middle and small chairs around it. The model shoes the fantasy of the “secret base camp”. The lies, and not the well-meant ones, start early. The last of the three rooms is a surprise. It is devoted to Kim Jong-suk, the mother of Kim Jong-il. She died in 1949 during a still birth and is venerated as the “mother of Korea”. Same pattern, images, a birthplace model, chairs. The men get 20 images each but the lady has to do with eight. In the corridor is a mural. Happy children with air balloons in front of an outline of the world. The unified Korea glows in all directions. To the left is a depiction of the military might, to the right a rocket swishes into space.

We had been told to bring gifts for the children. I didn’t. I am not here to be the giving-uncle. And the greatest gift for these children would probably be to take something from the DPRK (a certain overweight dictator and his cronies). I take some pictures. The kids are happy, kids always are if you give them toys. They grab what’s on offer, they run away and if the air has cleared, they come back and try what they got. The soap-bubbles prove popular. One girl has some M&M’s for the children. She opens the bag, and starts to give them away. I like the scene and take some pictures. Mr Ri approaches with quick steps. He tells her to stop, to give the M&M’s to the educators, they would give them to the children.

The tractor fleet of the collective farm is rather less impressive. The guide is still thankful for the eight tractors that were given to them during the last visit of a leader a few years agon (by the way, he paid them with your money not his). In Germany one would have given these tractors maybe in the 1980s. But they are better than the others who look like the 60s. There are a few trailers and some older ones, half of which are not operational. A sowing machine for rice, a small rice harvester, three plows. We are late but there is also the feeling that we are not supposed to take too detailed a look here. It doesn’t really look like it’s much in use. Outside of the gate with all the tractors is an ox cart.

We visit a home. The display is bad, no one believes that this is a real home. There is a TV with a DVD player (secured by a voltage regulator). Eternal leader images hang on the wall. We have to remove our shoes but there is nothing personal in that “home” that would make it look like being in use.

I am the last in the home and suddenly Mr Ri is standing in front of me. “Show me the pictures from the kindergarten.” He sounds stern, even a bit menacing. I am surprised, I have no feeling of guilt, what did I do wrong? I move quickly through my pictures. I want to stress him and give him little time. After about 60 pictures he says “delete these”. My screen shows the pictures of the girl giving out sweets to the children. I don’t really get what he’s after, my pulse quickens. “Why these pictures? I don’t understand.” “They are dangerous.” It is four pictures he objects to. The camera is in my hands all the time but he stands very close and has the screen in view. I delete the first, delete the second, take the risk and quickly skip the third, I delete the fourth picture. Good, he didn’t notice the skipping. “Mr Ri, what is wrong with these pictures?” “The children, someone gives food to them and they stretch their hands up to get the food.” Suddenly I understand. “It looks as if they beg for food”, I nod, “People take such pictures and put them in a newspaper.” I understand now what he thinks. You can take a picture like this everywhere in the world, this is how children behave. But in the North Korean context, there is another subtext. “Again, hunger in North Korea: Children are begging for food” could be the headline. The situation is uncomfortable and I feel a bit helpless. He has cornered me as everybody else had already left, we are all alone in the small house. But at least I get now what he wants. I do think he also finds the situation uncomfortable but it is his duty. His tone changes, he suddenly sounds imploring: “Do you remember how I helped you as you forgot your lens, as I took care that you got it back?” “I do, I do”. What is he thinking about me now? Does he think that was all planned? A choreographed action to produce such a picture? The girl gives out the sweets and I take a few casual shots from some distance? I assure him that I was not aware that these pictures were a problem. I tell him that I now understand why he thinks that picture is problematic. We agree that I just don’t really know what is good and what is bad. I smile, he smiles. We step out of the house. Unfortunately, I did not have another memory card at hand and so the pictures were overwritten and could not be reclaimed from the card. At least I saved one.


A checkpoint. We have reached Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city. First stop are the statues of the eternal leaders. The two “western” guides of our two groups lay flowers. If someone else would have wanted flowers, there would have been a problem, only two bouquets were available. Our driver doesn’t seem to know this area well, to get to the Grand Theater he has to ask a traffic policeman for advice. Our guides are more strict in “the East”, the region has only been opened for tourism a few years ago and people are not used to it, they say. We are asked to take pictures discretely and not to open the small sliding sashes on the bus anymore. It is visible that the people behave different. In Pyongyang nobody seemed to care about us, here they are much more likely to have a look. As we visit the theatre (from the outside) a man stops and just stares at us as if we are aliens, well we kind of are to him. It is already dark as we reach the beach villas. That sounds better than it is. It is an old hotel called Majon Beach Guesthouse and the “villas” are not very impressive. There is no running water today. The filled-up bathtub is our supply of cold water, next to it is a plastic barrel with hot water. That is our supply of that. In the classic Korean way, we are supposed to take a shower by filling a small bowl and pouring it over our head. Works perfectly. At least the beach villas are at the beach. At both ends of the sand are lights, probably guards to prevent us from venturing out.      

I start the day with a swim in the Japanese Sea. Language-wise I have already made a misstep. The Koreas are in total agreement that this body of water is not the Japanese Sea but are less sure what it is instead. The South prefers “East Sea” and the North “Korean East Sea”. Breakfast is rather meagre, welcome to North Korea’s East. Two slices of old toast, some jam, some butter, that’s it. A change from the choice in Pyongyang. There are reports in international media that food security is running low in the poor North East. Apparently, some people go hungry. The worst moral dilemma of my trip, do I want to eat the food that North Koreans are lacking? I reassure myself that with the money I spend, North Korea could buy a lot more food than I eat.                        

License tags in North Korea are colour coded, white is the most common and means the car/truck belongs to a state-owned company. Black is the military but also seen on many civilian looking cars. Fittingly for a dictatorship relying on the armed forces, it can also be seen on many higher quality SUVs. Red and yellow are rare. Red are private companies and yellow are private individuals. During our whole trip, we saw exactly one yellow number plate. Blue is for aid organizations, diplomats and the United Nations. Rarely seen in Pyongyang they are a lot more common in the east. Several jeeps with blue number plates are standing in front of the hotel.


We drive back towards Hamhung and the fertiliser factory, our next stop, comes into view. Not yet actually the factory but the chimney. The smoke is a very unhealthy looking dark yellow. Photogenic. After a week in North Korea, you ask yourself if it is okay to take a picture of that or not. You look around, check where Mr Ri is, check if he is watching, you take a casual shot. No one seems bothered by anything, dark yellow smoke is apparently considered normal. Maybe even seen as a sign of progress. At the factory they will proudly tell us how many tons of fertiliser they produce and how this helps North Korea. A group of German parliamentarians visited the same factory in June 2015. The accompanying reporter of the German weekly Wirtschaftswoche noticed the same chimney. The factory director was fairly open to the parliamentarians, the sulphur emissions would be twice as high as allowed by international norms. A filter should be installed by the end of the year but with the sanctions they had trouble to get it in place. Due to the lack of spare parts the factory would only operate at half capacity. We were painted a rosier picture (we were also not in a potential position to help) and they claimed that the production was running full steam. All the machinery we saw was very old but seemed to be well taken care of. The retro uniforms of the workers were a delight.

Palace of Ri Song Gye

The last few hundred metres to the palace of Ri Song Gye are narrow. Our bus just fits between the trees. A group of cyclists is ahead of us and as they notice the bus they immediately dismount and try to get out of the way, pushing themselves and their bikes between the trees. Communist countries often claimed that they were economically poorer but much more friendly places to live in as they were not relying on pressure and exploitation. Reality was often different. With a lack of open and democratic structures and effective means to complain about bad treatment, individual citizens were often treated harshly. North Korea seems an especially rough place. If the bus, who will usually carry VIPs, either Korean or foreign, arrives, everybody else has to make way. On the previous day, I had observed the man in the passenger seat of a small truck smacking a pedestrian on his head. The punished offence had been to walk to far in the road. Our bus driver “punishes” some cyclists for the same reason. He overtakes them and then cuts them off so that they have to stop. My appreciation for the white-gloved and usually mild-mannered Mr Kim sinks rapidly in this moment.

At the palace we meet another group of cyclists. All men, well dressed with black trousers, a white shirt and some with a red tie. The rules are clear, nonetheless the local guide takes a megaphone to remind everybody who might have forgotten. There is a famous tree on the palace grounds and the second-class visitors from North Korea take some pictures there. At the arrival of the first-class visitors from around the world, they move away, while away the time on the other side of the garden and only return after the hard currency-bringing foreigners go inside the palace. Is this compatible with Juche? Still, an interesting situation develops as we are watching the North Korean group but they are also clearly watching us. The palace isn’t big, one building with a great hall and seems to serve the function to demonstrate how bad feudalism had been. We are being told about women who had to walk up stairs in order that the men could see their shins. Well, I have no sympathy for feudalism but want to ask all the time if Kumsunsan Palace in Pyongyang should not be seen as a modern form of feudalism. It’s way too big, I think.