In mid-December of 2011 the North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il died coincidentally at around the same time I wrote my article about the abandoned *K-1 Pachinko Parlor* (about 30 to 40 % of Japanese pachinko parlors have ties to North Korea) – and the whole North Korea thing came back to my mind. You know, my urge to visit North Korea being limited by my unwillingness to support the system by spending money on it.
I’ve been growing up in a divided country myself (Germany) and I’ve been fascinated by dystopian literature and movies as well as the aesthetics of run down architecture for about two decades, so I guess a certain interest in North Korea was only natural – especially when living in a neighboring country, Japan, for more than 5 years now.
Exploring abandoned buildings in North Korea will most likely be off-limits for quite a while; unless you are North Korean, of course, but I guess then you have other and more serious problems…
So what’s the next best thing when exploring abandoned North Korean buildings in North Koreaisn’t an option and pachinko parlors are too obscure? Right, you look for abandoned institutions once run by North Koreans close to where you live. While the Republic of Korea (= South Korea / 대한민국) has one embassy and nine consulates in Japan, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (= North Korea / 조선민주주의인민공화국 / 朝鮮民主主義人民共和國) doesn’t have any of those institutions, let alone abandoned ones. But since Koreans are by far the biggest minority in Japan (in 2005 more than 900,000 Koreans lived in Japan, only 285,000 of them naturalized Japanese citizens – most of the rest are Zainichi Koreans, Koreans with a permanent residency) they are pretty well organized to get their interest represented. Of the 610.000 Zainichi Koreans about 65% are members of the Mindan (Korean Residents Union of Japan / 민단) with ties to South Korea, while another 25% are members of the Chongryon (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan / 총련 / 總聯) with strong ties to North Korea. Interestingly enough there is a Japanese group called Zaitokukai (在日特権を許さない市民の会, Citizens against Special Privilege of Zainichi) who opposes both groups – and sometimes even more: On October 31st 2009 some members protested foreigners in Halloween costumes with a sign stating “This is not a white country”. Whenever you thought you’ve seen and heard it all…
But let’s get back to the Chongryon. In addition to offering support and various services to their members (including issuing North Korean passports) the Chongryon not only controls a serious chunk of the Japanese pachinko money, it also runs about 140 schools (朝鮮学校 / 조선학교), kindergartens and a university in Japan. While it is said that all the classes and conversations at those schools are conducted in Korean I am not 100% sure about that since the few leftover books I saw at the abandoned school I visited were (partly) in Japanese. So, yes, some of the North Korean schools in Japan are deserted now. Which isn’t a surprise given the fact that the number of students enrolled in those schools went down from 46,000 in the 1970s to about 15,000 in 2004.
The abandoned North Korean school in Gifu prefecture I visited rather spontaneously in late December of 2011 must have been victim of that loss of interest. Half an hour by foot away from the next train station the school was located on top of a small hill, overseeing the surrounding countryside. With about half a dozen classrooms plus special rooms for sports, physics, chemistry and music it’s quite easy to understand why this Chongryon institution was one of the first candidates to become a modern ruin. Opened in 1975 it closed in 1998 already – its students being transferred to another Chongryon school in the suburbs of Nagoya; 20 minutes away by train, but closer to a railway station.
Exploring a North Korean School on Japanese ground was nothing like I expected. The school looked nothing like I expected. No North Korean flags, no propaganda material, no socialist style architecture. Quite the opposite. The layout of the school was full of nooks and crannies, its level of decay reminded me of *my trip to Pripyat and Chernobyl*. I was actually so fascinated by it that I walked around for maybe half an hour to see every last bit of it without taking a photo – and then I took a 19 minute long video. Usually I try to break up buildings by floors or other units, but this school felt so organic I had to turn into a poor man’s Michael Ballhaus and film the whole abandoned and quite seriously vandalized building in one shot. Always having Sting’s “Russians” in the back of my mind.
Do the North Koreans love their children, too? Having the physical distance of living in Europe, the States or Australia the problem might not sound so serious and North Korea might appear as that wacky little state with its funny looking leaders, but living in a neighboring country there are quite a few people here that are worried about what will happen in the upcoming weeks and months – and given the fact that South Korea and the States placed their troops under high alert I guess there is a serious number of people who are having serious thoughts about that “bonsai Cold War”. Personally I’m not much of a worrier. I actually still like cracking jokes about North Korea being reunited with South Korea and East Korea. (East Korea being Japan, based on a theory that around 300 AD a Korean cavalry army conquered Japan, and therefore the rulers of Japan are actually of Korean descent till this very day. Especially Japanese people don’t think my quirky humor is funny…)
I have no doubts the North Koreans love their children, too – sadly this deserted school was no indicator. I wish there would have been more signs that the school actually was a North Korean school. I found a couple of washed-out pieces of paper showing past school festivities, describing them in Korean, having the cliché level of formality and stiffness you would expect of events like that. In the lobby was a smashed “World Atlas” with several destroyed clocks on top – interestingly enough the people in charge included Moscow, but chose London over (East) Berlin; Pyongyang of course had its own row. Also in the lobby I found several boxes of a sexual stimulant called Samboso. Yes, a sexual stimulant in a school… (Insert clergy joke here!) It seems like the main ingredients were ginseng and honey, but even the crude English text didn’t reveal much information. Neither did the internet. But it gets even stranger: The text on the bottle as well as on the package stated in Roman letters “Pyongyang, Korea”. So here I had a sexual stimulant from North Korea, labeled in English and Korean in a deserted North Korean school in Japan. Finally I have a good answer when somebody asks me “What is the strangest thing you’ve ever seen when exploring abandoned buildings?” – can it get any weirder than that?
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Addendum 2014-03-02: Since I wrote this article, I’ve been to the real North Korea twice. Not for urbex, obviously, but those vacations were nevertheless extremely interesting. *You can read all about them here.*