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 VII –Wonsan & Around     

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

To Wonsan

It is a ride of several hours to Wonsan. We drive through villages and small towns, see plenty of propaganda slogans and installations, including one showing a direct hit on the US capitol building in Washington, DC. A chance to just observe life. At some point our bus is going at the same speed as a train. We greet the train passengers and they greet back.


It’s love on first sight. Whereas Hamhung made me depressed with its greyness, its flatness, its drabness, Wonsan has all a city needs. The sea, hilly terrain, some high-rises. It looks sophisticated, that place has potential. North Korea has realized that and it is part of the Wonsan-Mt Kumgang International Tourist Zone. We stop at the central square and visit the usual statues. The city hall is under construction, be careful with taking pictures. We are close to the sea and a ship lying at the pier catches my attention. Wonsan is situated along a beautiful bay where a peninsula with two buildings on the tip reaches into the sea. The ship at the pier is the notorious Mangyongbong-92. Because of the colonial history and the forced labour during World War II (and don’t forget the wave of emigration during political repressions in the 1980s) a sizeable minority of about 900,000 ethnic Koreans live in Japan. The integration/assimilation happened very slowly due to resistance on both sides. Many of them, even when born in Japan, are not Japanese citizens but “Special Permanent Residents”. The Koreans in Japan are divided into a Northern and a Southern block. The adherents of North Korea had long been the majority and even now, totally incomprehensible to me, about 150,000 of them are seen as supporters of the North. About 9,000 pupils in Japan are studying in North Korean operated schools. The Mangyongbon-92 was their connection with the “homeland”. At the beginning of the new millennium, as the hopes for a political realignment on the Korean peninsula ran high, North Korean-Japanese relations were also thought to enter a new era. The Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang for talks about the normalization of the relationship. A political bomb detonated during this visit. There had long been rumours, that North Korea had kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens. The suspicion was that North Korea needed native speakers to train spies in language and culture. Time and again, Japanese citizens had disappeared without any trace, mostly in Japan but also in Madrid or Copenhagen. Japanese authorities counted 17 cases between 1977 and 1983. North Korea and the North Korean organizations in Japan had always dismissed these rumours as a baseless conspiracy theory. But now, obviously meant as a gesture of good-will, Kim Jong-il confirmed the kidnappings. 13 cases, five would be still alive and the other eight already dead. The Japanese public was horrified. Kim Jong-il said sorry but took no personal responsibility and put the blame on overzealous individuals. The eight deaths were suspicious as they all happened in the respective late twenties/ early thirties. In one case mother and daughter had disappeared, North Korea confirmed the kidnapping of the daughter but claimed the mother had never been in North Korea. Two years later (!), the five survivors were allowed to leave for Japan. Many questions remained and the fact that North Korea did not appear to want to be helpful to answer them poisoned the attempt to improve relations. The gesture of good-will had proven ill-planned and ill-advised. If you confess to something, you have to put the cards on the table and not be seen as still hiding something. But if you are not living in a free society, it is hard to understand how a free society will react. As North Korea tested a long-range rocket in 2006 Japanese patience was up, sanctions were introduced and the Mangyongbong-92, who was suspected of being used to smuggle rocket parts anyway, was blocked from accessing Japanese ports. That is still the situation in 2015.

We head to the beach. To a fenced part of the beach actually. There are a few other tourists and a few Koreans. According to our guides everybody can come here but our beach has significantly fewer people than other parts of the beach (that are also fenced in) making that claim suspicious. It is warm but cloudy, the sea is rough and dirty. My third best swim in North Korea. Two girls from our group don’t want to be at the beach. They ask the guides if it is possible to visit the nearby park that we saw from the bus. They decline the request. To improve their negotiating position, the girls ask some other people if they would be interested as well. There is now five of us and the guides agree to go. Miss Kim tells me not to take any pictures. Five tourists with two guides walk to the park. Not being able to take pictures hurts, North Korea is showing its best side. It’s a Wednesday but the park is full of people. They are having barbeques, car batteries, cassette recorders and loudspeakers provide music, beer and soju is consumed, people dance. There are plenty of people who are obviously having fun. Many Saudis would love to have such a park in their country. Wonderful pictures are waiting, but my camera has been restricted inside its bag. For me that answers the discussions about the picknick group we saw the day before. There are many groups like this here, and this is definitely not staged, no one knew that we would be coming here.

As I just start to make my peace with the kingdom of the Kim’s, the reality of the North Korean surveillance state catches up with us. We have been around for ten to fifteen minutes as an unremarkable man arrives on a bicycle. He gets down from the bike and passing us says a few words. Within a split-second, totally seamlessly, one of our guides turns around and follows him. We keep on walking with the other guide as if nothing happened. After a long moment of silence, she says: “I don’t know who that was, I don’t know what he wanted but I think it’s better if we go back now.” We had been on the way back anyway but everyone agrees. We thank her for the extra tour. We have now spent a week with our guides, and of course you built some sort of relationship, no one of us wants to see them in any trouble.
The guides are not talkative in these situations, the admission not to know who that man was and what he wanted is already as open as it can get. Losing control is usually not something admitted in North Korea. As we later ask if there is a problem, we get the telling reply “not anymore”. 15 minutes, five tourists with two guides walking through a public park, not taking pictures, doing nothing else than hearing and watching caused a problem. Someone noticed, someone was disturbed, someone decided it is a problem that needed to be resolved, someone took action. That’s how tight the net is. As we leave an hour later, Mr Ri is still talking with an official looking person but it seems like a friendly chat.  

Back in Wonsan, we head to the island in the bay over a concrete walkway. People are fishing, playing cards, clams are barbecued. The card players don’t want to have their picture taken and one guy seems to believe I want to steal his boat as I approach closer. In the backyard of the hotel, we get some barbecued clams. Tasty, but the accompanying soju is terrible. After that we head to dinner. The restaurant is about 150 metres from the hotel. We are not allowed to head back alone but in groups with a guide. Honestly, if you would be determined to escape into the Wonsan darkness, there wouldn’t be much to stop you. The provincial hotels have a small “amusement area” as well. A bar, some karaoke. We are all in the central atrium and Mr Ri teaches me a lesson how to play table-tennis. I hectically try to copy my pictures onto a hard drive, in case there would be any trouble leaving North Korea.

I mount my zoom lens and it shows absolutely no reaction. It is not possible to focus anymore, not automatically nor manually. How did that happen? Yesterday evening it worked like a breeze and in the evening and at night it was in the hotel room (where I rarely was) and now it is broken. I am not a fan of conspiracy theories but if something like that happens in North Korea you start to wonder. For me that means no zoom photography anymore. The manufacturer will later decline a warranty repair as the defect had been caused by improper handling/impact of force. I believe they did not even look seriously at the lens as it was the one I used sandpaper on to make it look older and hide my scratch marks.                      

Songdowon International Children’s Union Camp

The Children’s Camp is a children’s paradise meant for the exchange of children and youth groups. Signs in Korean, English, Russian and Chinese throughout the complex stress the international character. It was renovated and enlarged in 2013. It really is a children’s paradise. We are being shown a pool with a diving platform and several water slides, clean and neat six-bed dorms with flatscreen TVs (why that?), a stately dining area, a training kitchen for the cooks of the future, a birthday room, a theatre, a natural history exhibition, a room with video games, a cinema, a building with plenty of aquariums, a bird house, a small stadium. We do not visit the sports hall as we are tired of so much paradise. All is new and seems to have a high standard. Seeing this with North Korean eyes, you are forgiven of thinking that there might be a better future ahead.

Some reminders that we are in North Korea are waved into the tour. Some Kimheads on the walls, a Kim-and-kids-statues ensemble, a very, very crude world map on a tiled façade where only the Korean peninsula is executed beautifully. Some propaganda posters and a row of computer tables where we are being told that the computers are coming soon. The idea with the signs for the leader visits was taken to extremes, you can follow the exact path of Kim Jong-un’s two visits through every door if you want. The buildings felt empty but that was probably due to the fact that all groups were out on activities. When we visit the activities, we see plenty of kids. Again, there is the question of who is allowed to go here. Maybe the kids of our guides? The common people? There will be some rules.

Back to Pyongyang

Before heading back to Pyongyang, we stop at another holy site of the revolution. A steam locomotive has been crammed into Wonsan’s old station building. Someday Kim Il-sung went somewhere important doing something of greatness with the help of this locomotive. What we are being told is probably only bearing scant relation to what really happened and as I have no previous knowledge of this episode, I will not be able to evaluate what is being said. I stop listening. I would have been a lot happier with just the chance to have a walk in Wonsan.

The ride back to North Korea’s capital takes a few hours. Close to Pyongyang we visit the grave of king Tongmyong. A world heritage site but in a terrible state, not that everything is breaking down, the opposite is the problem, everything seems brand new. Why take wood for a column if you can just make it from concrete? Coupled with total tidiness (someone is cutting the grass with scissors) that takes all atmosphere from the site. At least one of the guides creates a highlight as the forbidden word, “South Korea”, makes it into his mouth. The correction “in the southern area” comes quickly, but we have all heard it.

We are a bit early so we kill some time at the Koryo hotel. The upmarket alternative to the Yanggakdo is located in the city centre. Some visitors there manage to have a short walk. I start to write my 30 postcards; they need to be finished tomorrow morning. Over the next months most of them will make it to their intended destination. Back in our hotel, we all return to the exact same rooms. As we departed, we could, for a few euros, leave some bags behind. We were told to leave them in our rooms, they would be collected and returned. I am sure they were standing there all the time. The demand for rooms is not that high.