After breakfast at the Hoeryong Hotel we started a highlight tour of the city. First destination was a statue of Kim Jong-suk, Kim Il-sung’s wife and Kim Jong-il’s mother, who died in 1949 when lil’ Kim was just seven years old. Barely mentioned during tours to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-suk, pardon: comrade Kim Jong-suk, is all over the place in North Hamgyong province and especially her place of birth, Hoeryong. So after the mandatory bowing in front of her statue (the two stones where Kim Jong-il bowed marked in a different color!) we strolled through a park dedicated to her before visiting her native birthplace and the “Museum of the Revolutionary Accomplishments of Kim Jong-suk” – guess whom / what that was all about! Though I have to admit that it was actually quite interesting. I am a bit of a history buff and access to material about Kim Jong-suk is limited outside of North Korea, so at least they didn’t tell me stuff I’ve heard a thousand times before. Like what Hoeryong is famous for… (“beautiful women, beautiful white peaches, beautiful earthenware”)
Next stop was the Kim Ki-song Senior Secondary School, named after Kim Jong-suk’s younger brother, who was killed in their shared fight against the Japanese occupiers. What started as a typical school tour with a statue in front of the building and a room about the school’s history, turned into an interesting place on many levels. When we visited the computer room with its 16 workstations everything seemed to be normal, but when I switched to the other side of the room to have a look what the teens were actually working on, it turned out that all the screens were black! Smelling deception I talked to my fellow travelers who revealed that… just when I crossed the room the power was cut! Half a minute earlier the kids were actually doing something on their computers. A blackout during bright daylight is nothing to be proud of obviously, but it’s still better than faking a computer lesson completely…
When I left the room, a couple of large propaganda paintings on the walls caught my eyes. One of them showed an American soldier captured by a Korean one, some Korean characters in the lower right corner. I thought it was the artist’s name, but after the tour it turned out it was the paintings (sub-)title: The miserable end of an invader.
Next on the list was attending an English class with the scariest teacher I’ve ever seen. When you learn a new language you often pronounce words slightly incorrectly, so you sound too soft, too harsh, too scared, too whatever; so it probably was a pronunciation thing, but when she asked her students what Korea will be like in the year 2050 she sounded like Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. (The students didn’t seem to mind and gave their obviously prepared answers in a rather workmanlike way.) Speaking of pronunciation: I loved the schematics on the wall which showed how to position your tongue for certain sounds, though some of the example sentences were rather unusual. (“Korea is the land of Juche.” / “I am a student and he is a Worker.” (sic))
To my surprise the tour of the school didn’t end with a performance, but outside in the yard, where some boys played soccer and some girls played basketball – we were encouraged to join them, but the guys played on such a high level and with such dedication that nobody dared to, so the girls got all the attention. I was more interested in the little details anyway, like the piles of firewood and the crumbling statues in an almost garden like area.
My favorite stop in Hoeryong was at the Mangyang Ferry, the place where Kim Jong-suk crossed the Tumen River as a child to flee from the Japanese oppressors. They even had a wooden ferry boat under an open wooden construction right next to a mural of a young Kim Jong-suk. In sight of this revolutionary site was not only a bridge between China and Korea with customs offices on both sides, but also a pagoda shaped sightseeing tower for Chinese and western tourists – it seems like people love to stare across rivers to have a look at the Hermit Kingdom. On the way back to the bus we saw a soldier herding a couple of goats. While some of us were secretly taking photos I went all in and asked Mr. Li for permission – and to my surprise he granted it, though it’s usually an absolute no-go to take photos of military in the DPRK.
North Korea & Japan – A Rant
After lunch at the Hoeryong Hotel we started our two-hour long drive to Chongjin – and I think it was this bus ride that first drove me nuts and then lead to an ultimate facepalm. The insane part started when Mr. So handed out handwritten lyric sheets to everybody and insisted on teaching us the latest North Korea smash hit – created just a couple of days prior. (He gave us a number, they always give you numbers, it was something like 8, 13 or 16 days… I forgot.) Which means that he sang the song about a dozen times before making us join him. Like I mentioned before – I don’t like to sing or dance, Korean people love it. I survived living in Japan for more than seven years without going for karaoke. And here I was on this bus from hell with no possibility to escape – although I have to admit in retrospect a thought like that sounds ridiculous, given that we were passing by a concentration camp almost every day, where people really experience hell and have no possibility to escape…
The involuntarily amusingly surreal part began after the singing, when Mr. Li told us about some concrete pillars between two mountains, obviously part of a never finished or dismantled train track. Comrade Li said that those pillars were built by Korean people under the worst possible conditions during the Japanese occupation – in Pyongyang everybody focuses on how bad the Americans are, but in the northern parts the Japanese are still the ultimate evil. The workers back then had to work long hours, the weather was terrible, they didn’t get enough food, shelter was bad, if someone didn’t work hard enough he got punished and if somebody died he wasn’t buried, but thrown into the planking, becoming part of the concrete pillar – it was a horrible story, most likely true as the Japanese ruled Korea with an iron fist, yet it basically sounded like the current conditions in the concentration camp just down the road. But that wasn’t the only irony Mr. Li didn’t get at all – 5 minutes later we saw a huge yet ancient looking factory to the right and Mr. Li proudly told us that it was the biggest concrete factory in the country, built in 1936. (According to my research after the tour, the plant is called Komusan Concrete Factory and was finished in June 1936 with a production capacity of 150.000 tons per year.) If you are not that familiar with Korean history let me tell you that the peninsula was occupied by Japan from 1905 until 1945 – so North Korea’s biggest concrete plant was actually planned and built by the oh so evil Japanese who never did anything good at all… Am I the only one who can’t help but thinking of “The Life of Brian” and the “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene?
This “concrete pillar / concrete factory” story is a prime example for the North Korean doublethink, on the other hand it shows that Japan is often overlooked when it comes to the Korea conflict and WW2 in general!
Gosh, I am pretty sure I will regret this rant sooner or later, but the Mr. Miyagi image so many people have of Japan is definitely wrong! The way Japan handles its role in World War 2 makes me sick to the stomach. It starts with the fact that the world, and especially Japan, pretends that WW2 started for Japan in 1941 with their attack on Pearl Harbor – and by that half of humankind ignores at least 10 years of unimaginable cruelty Japan spread all over Asia after the Mukden Incident in 1931, making it easy for them to portray themselves as victims of WW2, because Hiroshima and Nagasaki was clearly more cruel than the attack on Pearl Harbor; and other than this sneaky surprise attack, Imperial Japan didn’t commit much cruelty to American soldiers. But war crimes and atrocities were committed in unimaginable high numbers especially against Koreans and Chinese – *last time* I wrote about the concentration camps in North Korea, but if you want to read some really sick shit, do some research on “Unit 731”, Japan’s secret biological warfare department. Heck, I make it easy for you: *Here’s a link to Wikipedia!* But instead of taking responsibility Japan points towards Hiroshima, showing who in their opinion the real victim of World War 2 is – and nothing changed. Shiro Ishii and his butchers of Unit 731 got away free thanks to States, who granted them immunity. The Massacre / Rape of Nanjing is called “Nanjing Incident” in Japanese, the sex slaves of the Japanese military during WW2 are usually called “comfort women” even in English – and called “a necessary evil” by Osaka’s mayor Toru Hashimoto in May of 2013, who just says what most regular Japanese people actually think to this very day. The unwillingness of the Japanese to take responsibility is omnipresent! From the aftermath of World War 2 to the Minamata disease in the 1960s to Fukushima this very second – the examples are countless. To some degree the huge amount of abandoned places in Japan is another symptom of this problem as people rather walk away than take care of a problem. And when I explain to friends here in Japan that the difference between Germany and Japan is the Warsaw Genuflection on the one side and the Yasukuni Shrine on the other side, all I get is a complete lack of understanding.
So, why this long rant, spanning 100 years? Because IMHO both North Korea and Japan should finally shut the fuck up (pardon my French…) and deal with the facts. Anti-Japanese propaganda in North Korea is so out of place after almost 70 years, especially since half of the North Korean infrastructure and economy dates back to the Japanese occupation! What other country in the world has to say “Our biggest cement factory is almost 80 years old!”? It’s ridiculous! At the same time Japan needs to grow some balls and deal with its past. I am so tired of whining Japanese who cry over how much Asia hates them – and then they applause some politician douchebag who basically says “The rape of women all over Asia was necessary, killing a couple of hundred thousand civilians in Nanjing wasn’t that bad – but enough of that, I have to go to some shrine to honor a couple of war criminals!”. Heck, it’s not even just the past Japan has to deal with, it’s the present, too! When the toothless tiger DPRK did some missile tests in 2013, Japan positioned massive amounts of defensive military equipment in the government quarters, making North Korea a much bigger threat than it actually is – financed by Japanese money in the first place! I mentioned it before and I will mention it again: According to an article in the Japan Times from 2007, up to 200 billion Yen per year are flowing to North Korea due to pachinko parlors run by exile North Koreans in Japan. Back then 200 billion Yen were about 1.7 billion USD, while North Korea had a government budget of 3.2 billion USD in the same year according to the CIA. If that includes the pachinko money, then Japan was financing half of North Korea’s expenditures, if not it was still a third! So instead of whining about and pointing at North Korea – how about banning pachinko? The whole business is shady and half-legal at best anyway since most of the parlors not controlled by exile North Koreans are run by the yakuza, the Japanese mafia! But hey, that would mean getting things done and taking responsibility – and what most Japanese people think about that I wrote halfway through this rant…
(And as a disclaimer: This was a broad generalization, like French make good wine, Germans build great cars and Italians have fantastic pizza. Not all Japanese are the same and I met some of the most awesome people in this country – but also some of the most stubborn, ignorant, right-wing racist douchebags! I don’t need to tell you about temples, anime, sushi and video games – everybody knows what’s great about Japan, but hardly anybody dares to look at the existing dark side…)
Okay, so after we left the cement factory behind we passed a power plant to the right, according to Mr. Li built in the 1980s (1984? 1986?) – which really surprised me, because it looked like it was abandoned since the mid-80s, not built back then! But it was nice to finally see something industry related not built by the Japanese…
Next stop of the karaoke bus – the Susongchon General Foodstuff Factory, which was a little bit harder to find on the map after the trip, since there is no Susongchon station or Susongchon district. And when I finally found it, I was pretty much shocked again – on the way there we must have passed the entrance gate to the Chongjin concentration camp, Kwan-li-so 25; not by kilometers, but by meters. Of course nobody pointed that fact out, but if you are planning on doing the same trip later this year, *have a look at my GoogleMap* first and keep your eyes open!
The factory itself was incredibly unspectacular. We were bombarded with numbers and how big the factory became over the last couple of years, yet here we were at a decently sized factory on a Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. where hardly anybody was working. All production lines stood still and we met more representatives of the factory than workers. Some of us were bored quickly and asked to step outside to take a photo of a sculpture or monument in front of the factory, which they got permission for – only to be ratted out by some locals, reporting to our guides that foreigners were taking photos outside of the factory…
When we finally reached the city center of Chongjin, the sun was setting and we were running out of time. A quick bow and photo session in front of a Kim Il-sung statue followed by a short visit at the North Hamgyong Provincial Revolutionary Museum, where we heard a ridiculous story about some trees with revolutionary slogans carved into – when the forest caught fire during the Japanese occupation the trees were protected by a bunch of Korean freedom fighters with their bare bodies. According to the story some of the soldiers died in the flames, but the trees survived!
Last sightseeing stop of the day was the North Hamgyong Provincial Electronic Library, a place our guides were especially proud of since it was in possession of more than 300 computers connected to Pyongyang via some kind of intranet. All workstations were actually occupied by teenagers who took a test exam coordinated from the capital. Good for them!
Good for us was dinner at the Chongjin Hotel, run by a former exile-Korean in Japan, who returned to Korea in the 1980s, building and running hotels in North Hamgyong province; he now is in control over about half a dozen of them. Dinner was absolutely amazing, definitely the best meal I had in the DPRK across both trips, with tons of fresh seafood. The hotel itself was of questionable quality – no hot water or working toilet in the room. And when I turned on the light upon entering, I heard some low noises and saw some bugs disappearing under the peeling linoleum floor. Have a good night everybody!
(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. *Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)