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Alone at that beach on a rough coast, the sun rising, an ice-cold wind blowing – Day 4 of the Northeastern Adventure was off to a perfect start!
At first it didn’t look like it though. I am not an early riser, yet my third night in North Korea ended 10 minutes prior, when our host brought hot water to our room at around 6.20 in the morning. At the same time a dog started to bark and all of a sudden I knew that I wouldn’t go back to sleep, so I jumped into my clothes instead. Still a little bit sleepy and not yet used to the cold (in Osaka it was still around 30°C!) I stumbled down the dirt road for a few dozen meters until I reached the beach, slightly irritated by the patches of frost on the grass ground – you see that about two days a year in Osaka… which means that Osakans start to wear North Face jackets when the temperature falls below 10°C; at night! I was looking up then, the sun still scratching the horizon, when happiness about my decision not to stay at the room and to head outside instead rose within me. There is something about the combination of nipping air, solitary and beautiful raw nature that puts a smile on my face.

It turned out that Day 4 was actually all about the stunning nature of Mount Chilbo, so we headed out to the Hadok Falls and several viewing points within the Inner Chilbo area. Some we drove up to, but sometimes we hiked for a while (up to a kilometer or two) to reach our destinations. Again a beautiful autumn day at gorgeous locations! Irritating and amusing at the same time were the explanations of our guideguards, when they continued to telling us stories about pretty much every rock in sight. “This we call XYZ, because it looks as if ABC is doing DEF with GHI!” – and of course in most cases there were just rocks with no resemblance or relation to whatever we were told happened there. But Mr. Li came up with one mythological story after another. Stories he really seemed to believe in…
Quite a rare sight was the Kaesim Temple! North Korea isn’t exactly a religious country, so most “sacred” buildings surviving the Japanese occupation and the Korean War were destroyed afterwards. Not so this temple, founded in 826. Restored in 1377 and equipped with a bronze bell from 1764, the temple is an important depository for scriptures, sculptures and paintings.
An unexpected sight was a huge portrait of Kim Jong-il and three other guys halfway up a hill, depicting the group in the Mount Chilbo area. It seemed terribly out of place, but I guess with an increased amount of tourists in the future you have to remind people who was the boss and who started to develop the area for comrades on vacation. It was never mentioned specifically during the tour, but it seems like Kim Il-sung never visited Mount Chilbo as it was too rural and undeveloped during his days.

After a rather late lunch at the Outer Chilbo Hotel (with a group of exile North Koreans living in Japan on the next table – probably pachinko people…) we spent almost two hours on the bus on our way to Kyongsong. We arrived at the Yombun Revolutionary Site during dusk, with just enough light left to take a couple of photos before heading to the Kyongsong Local Hot Spa House (part of the Kim Jong-suk Sanatorium), where some of us took a hot bath. After seven years in Japan still not a fan of the onsen culture there, two other guys and I headed for the Kyongsong Guest House, the local and really basic accommodation – no blackouts, but again neither hot nor running water.
(Funny story: At least one of my fellow travelers took their camera with them into the spa house, but for obvious reasons not into the bath. Later that evening they were told by our western guide that the Korean guides recommended to delete some of their photos! Nothing like privacy, eh?)

The night at the Kyongsong Guest House was not only our last evening with our first set of guides, it was also the 40th birthday of Mr. So, who did a good job keeping us on schedule and ironing out any problems in the background, while Mr. Li kept us entertained and within limits. Dinner was even bigger than usual and after a rather melodramatic speech by Mr. So the celebrations began – including lots of alcohol and songs. Even our third guide, Mr. Sin, loosened up and wouldn’t stop singing, dancing and drinking…
(Speaking of third guides: A third guide is only present if Americans are part of the group! The western tour guides were always vague about it and kind of made it sound as if it was coincidence whether or not a third guide would be with a group, but according to more experienced fellow travelers it really depends on the presence of Americans…)

My twelfth day in North Korea across both trips was probably my favorite one overall. I love spending time in the countryside and this day had it all. A wonderful sunrise at a gorgeous beach, light hiking at a stunning mountain range and a beautiful sunset at the wild cliffs of a revolutionary site – in addition to that good food and interesting conversations. An almost perfect day…

(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…)

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The most surprising and shocking revelation of the third day was the electric fence along the coast of North Korea!
After breakfast at the Chongjin Hotel we drove south through the city, past the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex (guess who originally built it!), which is dominating the look and economy of Chonjin. It seems like the little town of Ranam is supposed to become the new city center of Chonjin, with its rather modern apartment buildings, shopping mall and university, but it looks like it’s still a long way – and of course we weren’t allowed to take photos. Even when we stopped outside of Ranam the three guardguides made sure that we only took photos of some strange rock formations, not back towards Ranam and Chongjin; despite the fact that both of them were out of sight anyway. Free photography would be allowed in the Chilbo area and at special stops on the way, but not from the bus, they told us.
Several kilometers outside of Chonjin we finally reached the Sea of Japan (a.k.a. East Sea in South Korea and East Sea of Korea in North Korea) near the town of Orang. The beautiful coast of North Korea to the left, all of a sudden half the bus had “What the f*ck?!” written all over their faces, but of course nobody said anything – there was a multi-layered electric fence on top of a wall separating the beach from the bumpy dirt road! My rather loud DSLR prohibited me from taking photos, and so did the rather fast driving bus and the tainted windows. (I took a photo without asking the next morning, when I was alone at the beach of the Homestay Village, but I still had a bad feeling about it, given that there was supposed to be a memory card check when leaving North Korea through Rason – which actually didn’t happen in the end.)

Shortly afterwards we made a quick stop at a rather new saltworks, consisting of dozens of evaporation ponds – they actually built a viewing point for tourists to have a look.

To our surprise the next stop was just a few minutes away, when we headed inland again and passed Lake Mugye. It didn’t look that special and the concrete foundation at the shore was crumbling away, but almost everybody was happy about every opportunity to take photos, so none of us complained. (I guess the real reason to stop was using nature as a restroom – which didn’t work out for all of us, since there is hardly any place in North Korea without locals. The country’s population density isn’t that high (#65 in the world), yet you see locals at the strangest places in the middle of nowhere… everywhere.)

Following the rather short ride along the beautiful coastline and the equally short inland excursion, we finally reached the Sea Chilbo area and with it gained permission to take photos whenever we wanted (well, except for locals, poverty, military, …). Mount Chilbo, the Seven Treasure Mountain, is one of the most famous mountains in all of North Korea and is divided into three areas: Sea Chilbo, Outer Chilbo, Inner Chilbo – more about that in the next article as we spent almost a whole day hiking and sightseeing in the stunning Chilbo area.

After a nice snack at the scenic Soryangwha Waterfalls we continued to follow the winding road until we reached a homestay village between two small fishing villages – not the one for foreigners, one for locals! We made a quick photography stop coming down a hill, but surprisingly there was little to none activity in the village. I vaguely remember Mr. Li telling us a story how one of the Kims visited the village (or heard about it?) and sent them refrigerators to make the stay there more pleasant. By then we were already back on the bus to and on our way to THE Homestay Village near Pochon, the only homestay village in all of North Korea where foreign tourists are allowed to stay – except for Americans and Japanese for whatever reason.
There are not a lot of accommodations in the area (the closest one is the Outer Chilbo Hotel, about 15 kilometers away, where Americans and Japanese have to stay the night till this very day), so when the local government planned a new hotel, Kim Jong-il himself intervened and ordered to build a homestay village instead, as he thought it was the way of the future and at the time North Korea was one of the few countries not to offer this option. So in 2006 20 houses were built, some western style with beds (4 or 6 of them), the rest Korean style, with guests sleeping on the heated floor; the village center being a building with a restaurant and a small gift shop selling a few local products like beer and snacks.
After we chose a house, a member of the host family (most of them not able to speak English), picked us up and showed us our rooms. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, so all of us met outside for a relaxing walk along the beach. With no clouds in the sky it was just wonderful to enjoy this part of the Korean coast only a few westerners have ever laid their eyes on.
Next on the program, after most men returned from their regular work: a volleyball match against the locals. To avoid any “us against them” feeling we opted for mixed teams and it looked like everybody enjoyed themselves tremendously, despite the language barrier. After a demonstration of Korean wrestling, Kent, one of two Americans on the tour, sacrificed himself bravely when our group was challenged – and the Texas Yankee gave his opponent quite a tough time, much to the joy of Mr. Li, three young boys and pretty much everybody else present.
To get an even deeper understanding of Korean culture, we were able to participate in rice cake and noodle making afterwards, both of which we sampled before a delicious seafood and veggie dinner. But the evening wasn’t over yet! After a night walk with two fellow travellers, there were still two more items on the itinerary – first we met with the locals on the beach for a bonfire, then we all gathered at one of the houses to talk to the residents. I guess on previous tours people went home with their host families directly to have a talk with them, which tended to fail due to the language barrier and general awkwardness. Thanks to the bigger group and guides being able to translate, the whole thing was much more relaxed. The male head of the household came home late and didn’t have dinner before meeting with us, which didn’t stop him from chugging whole bowls of soju, local liquor with 20 to 40% alcohol, when being challenged – at first it didn’t seem to affect him, but then it hit him hard and we all left out of politeness; up to that point it was highly entertaining though. We were sitting in the living room and his wife, who understood English, but didn’t speak it, sat about a meter away from him in the kitchen – seeing them interacting with each other was downright hilarious!
Downright cute was the maybe two-and-a-half-year-old daughter of the village boss and his wife. They were living right next to the main building and we went to their house for the cooking practice in the afternoon – and their daughter was the cutest, most fearless toddler I’ve ever seen. Japanese kids tend to be extremely shy and most German toddlers seem to have a basic form of stranger anxiety, too. To see a fearless little girl in a country where most adults are horrified by foreigners was just heart-warming. She even attended the bonfire in the evening, laughing and dancing, trying to sing along – I really hope change comes quickly enough so she can keep her attitude and live an open-minded and free life!
Of course the homestay village didn’t put us in an average house with average Koreans. You can bet that all inhabitants are privileged local party members and that their interior is way above the DPRK standard, given that they have radios, TVs, plenty of kitchenware, … Nevertheless we experienced several blackouts during our 18-hour-stay – and none of the houses had working running water, and that included the toilets!

Which brings me back to the electric fences. I expected those around the concentration camps and of course regular prisons, probably near factories and of course everything related to military installations. Electric fences along the coast? That’s just bizarre! Of course the fences were not everywhere. Most of the North Korean coast consists of cliffs, so there is no need for fences there. The same applies for beaches within villages, where everybody can have an eye on each other. But as soon as you left an area that could not be directly controlled or quickly reached, one of those fences popped up. The North Korean government can’t provide sufficient electricity even for the privileged, let alone the regular population… yet there are electric fences along the coast?
One of my fellow travellers actually made a good point – those fences most likely are not active, since barbed wire and electric fences are deep in people’s minds. Everybody knows what happens if you touch them, so nobody dares to do so.
On the next day somebody actually brought up the topic to one of the guardguides and the answer was something along the line of: “The fences are there to prevent children from running into the water and drowning.”

(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…)

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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…)

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The Northeastern Adventure started on a rainy Monday morning in front of the Ryugyong Hotel. No, not the famous triangle shaped hotel in Pyongyang that was the world’s most famous construction ruin for many, many years – the one in Yanji, China, also known as Liujing Hotel. At first sight just a regular accommodation like most other ones in this emerging city, it is in fact quite unique as it is run by the North Korean state. More about the Ryugyong Hotel in the *Day 8 article*, when I actually stayed there for a night…
I had met some of my fellow travelers the day before on the way from Yanji airport to the city, but since I stayed at a different hotel, mainly for cost reasons (70 EUR VS 17 EUR…), I had to catch up with a couple of names and faces before being put on a bus to the border between China and North Korea. While most tourists to the DPRK enter and leave the country via Pyongyang Airport, we were about to use the border crossing in Tumen, about 40 kilometers east of Yanji. Up till 2013 Tumen attracted both Chinese and western tourists who wanted to take a peek at the Evil Empire and maybe buy some authentic North Korean items from local traders – defectors tend to sell most of their belongings, including the otherwise not-for-sale Kim pins North Koreans wear in public, to finance their new life in China. It was even possible to walk up to the middle of a border bridge for some souvenir photos… where a friend of mine was warned in 2012 that he would be shot if he’d take one more step, passing the yellow line on the ground. This border was opened to western tourists in 2013 – and to the best of my knowledge we were the second western tour group to ever cross this line (without being shot). It also means that we were most likely the second tour group to ever enter North Korea on foot, since you have to take a bus at the bridge in Wonchong to enter / exit North Korea when visiting Rason.
Despite one of my fellow travelers taking the flak from a Chinese immigration officer when taking photos inside the customs building (d’oh!), I quickly took out my small and totally silent video camera when we left, allowing me to shoot a three part video: Chinese customs building to final Chinese passport inspection, Chinese passport inspection to North Korean side of the bridge, North Korean side of the bridge up to North Korean border guard. How risky that move was, I realized at said warning line where my friend Nicolai almost got in trouble a year prior. Another member of my group crossed the border to North Korea and started to take photos – the Chinese border guard at the line told him to stop and delete the photos whereupon my fellow tourist said something like “You can’t tell me anything, I’m in North Korea now!”; he was right and the Chinese guy was slightly pissed. I just kept a low profile, holding my small black camera close to my chest, wearing a black T-shirt and a black coat…

Back In North Korea

While customs on the Chinese side were quick and easy, they dragged for quite a while on the North Korean side. After meeting our local guides we were led into a waiting room where we had to put all electronic devices as well as English and Korean books into a blue plastic bag with our names on it (in Korean). We were told ahead of time that there won’t be an X-ray machine and that everything would have to be checked by hand – luckily the customs office recently got a brand new machine, which cut down the waiting time drastically. The electronics check had to be done manually though, but the customs officers… well, they were not really familiar with modern technology. They knew about certain technical terms, but they didn’t seem to have a clue about how things are connected. IIRC they asked a fellow traveler to show them the hard-drive of her MacBook after booting the machine – and when she said that it doesn’t have one they shut down the computer and moved on with the next person. After about two hours we were finally done and entered our new main home of the following days: our bus. By North Korean standards an engineering marvel, coming from the country of Mercedes-Benz busses I’d consider it a rather uncomfortable Chinese monster with tinted windows. Yes, tinted windows, reducing visibility and shutter speed. Taking pictures from a moving bus on bumpy roads is tough as it is, tinted windows don’t help. But that was something I shouldn’t worry about too much anyway as the three guides officially introduced themselves, laying the law on us – i.e. reminding us that photography is the main problem with tourist groups and strictly limited, especially on the bus. That being said our driver Mr. Kim hit the gas and off we went…

Onsong

So, what’s the first thing you do upon arrival in North Korea? Wrong, not bowing in front of a statue, at least not in our case – we had lunch first! As you might remember from *my first trip to North Korea*, food is good and plenty in the DPRK… at least as long as you are a government official or a tourist. After a really good meal in Onsong we made our way to the Wangjaesan Grand Monument right outside of town (*don’t miss my tourist map of North Korea if you don’t want to get lost!*) – erected in 1975 to commemorate a speech given by Kim Il-sung, pardon: comrade Kim Il-sung, in 1933. Yes, comrade Kim Il-sung. The countryside guides are clearly a little bit rougher around the edges than the guides in Pyongyang. Their English is worse, their photography rules are stricter (and more inconsistent…) and instead of referring to the Kims just by their names we had to add “comrade” all the friggin time. Leaving it out lead to being corrected by Mr. Li, Mr. So and “the Shadow” Mr. Sin – who was barely seen and hardly heard until the last evening, when he finally relaxed and got drunk on Mr. So’s birthday. The Shadow also provided us each with a huge bag of homemade popcorn on the first day; great stuff BTW – eat that America, North Koreans make the better popcorn! 🙂
Anyway, Wangjaesan Grand Monument, a beautiful set of sculptures. Kim Il-sung surrounded by his people from all walks of life, people preparing baskets of flowers for the Great Leader and of course some more statues of soldiers moving forward. The real highlight though was the beautiful scenery the monument is located in… and the rather cute local guide in WW2 uniform. The Wangjaesan Revolutionary Museum we left out though – all four guides agreed that we could do without it.

Back on the bus the never ending confusion about photography started. Since we were in the middle of nowhere our fabulous guide Amanda got Mr. Li to allow us to take pictures from the bus… and five minutes later Mr. “No take photos!” came up to me and stopped me taking a video. I guess by pictures he meant photos, not videos… Or maybe I missed some kind of time limit. Lost in translation, that happens, but it continued, which started to frustrate me, especially since a Japanese guy was involved – he was on his 11th (!) trip to the DPRK, fluent in Korean and didn’t give a damn about any of the photography rules; and he always got away with it! It happened more than once that I heard a slowly familiar “No take photos!” (directed at me or somebody else from the group) while the descendant of the evil occupants (of all people!) freewheeled and took photos of anything and everything, including absolute no-gos like trains, stations and people.

From Onsong we took a rather mountainous road back towards the Chinese-Korean border along the Tumen River to our final destination of the day, Hoeryong – and Mr. Li started to repeat over and over the three things the city is famous for: beautiful women, beautiful white peaches and beautiful earthenware. On the way there we made a couple of stops where we finally again got official permission to take photos, which was nice, because this area is hardly seen by any westerners.

Hoeryong

Upon arrival in Hoeryong we checked into the Hoeryong Hotel (no need for creative names when the competition is low…) and had dinner – a rather nice hotel and a rather nice dinner, though the singing and dancing hit us with full force. We were told that after dinner the waitresses would like to entertain us with a performance, and of course it didn’t take long until some of us were dragged into it.
At least the waitresses were indeed beautiful, unlike other things going on in the city of Hoeryong. In fact, most Westerners who have heard of Hoeryong have heard of it in a different context: Hoeryong is (or was?) home to Kwan-li-so 22 – a.k.a. Penal Labor Colony 22 a.k.a. Hoeryong Concentration Camp. Founded in 1965 and according to satellite photos either remodeled or closed in 2012 it is one of the biggest and most infamous death camps in North Korea. With a size of 225 square-kilometers (!) it is far more than a prison – there are farms, a mine, a train station, several factories and of course quarters for the guards and up to 50.000 (!) prisoners. The West knows quite a bit about the conditions in the camp thanks to Ahn Myong-chol and Kwon Hyok, two former guards who defected in the 1990s – if you are interested in the sickening reports about people getting tortured, experimented on and worked to death feel free to google the place; you’ll find tons of gut-wrenching information on the internet.
Only few of us were aware of these unmentioned facts while sleeping well-fed in our warm beds at the Hoeryong Hotel – just 5 kilometers south of the death camp’s entrance…

(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…)

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My *first trip to North Korea* was a great experience. I went there with a certain amount of ignorance, to “enjoy the show”. And it was a good show, a great show… a fantastic show actually. It was so elaborate, that it was easy to believe most of it. No freedom of movement? Sure, their country, their rules. Regular blackouts outside of Pyongyang? Unfortunate exceptions. Taboo topics? Well, you avoid bringing up politics and religion in most parts of the world. The radio wasn’t working? Who cares, it would have been in Korean anyway – there was barely enough time to watch TV. Not much traffic? Well, it’s a poor country with fuel shortages, but everybody is trying to make the best of the situation. And the guides telling us that walking a lot is healthy anyway? Well, probably just North Korean humor – it’s not like Japanese jokes are much funnier…

North Korea is changing, no doubt about it – opportunities to “enjoy the show” are getting sparse, and now is probably the last chance to get a glimpse at the old regime, the strict, stiff, dictatorial North Korea. If you visit Pyongyang you already get a watered down, rather easy to swallow version. While a couple of years ago visitors had to refer to Kim Il-sung as “Great Leader” and Kim Jong-il as “Dear Leader”, nobody seems to care about the use of honorary titles like that anymore, as it alienates foreign visitors. The guides in Pyongyang speak English quite well and most of them have enough experience with foreigners to know how to handle them and follow the rather strict limitations (forced on them by their bosses) at the same time. It’s easy to get lost in that charade and blame all the evil things happening on America or the people themselves – if they would have followed the rules, they would not have been put in jail. (Which is bullshit, as we all know. In the Early Modern Age countless women were tortured and killed as witches, because their resentful neighbors made a claim and the victim had to proof their innocence. And that’s pretty much how North Korea works today.)

After my return to Japan and the series of articles I wrote about my trip to North Korea, I wanted to see more. I wanted to see a different side. I wanted a rougher version, to see myself whether Pyongyang was just a sample of an aspiring country striving for success – or if it was the exception, a Potemkin village to fool visitors.
In July 2013, while still writing articles for the first series, I decided to go back to North Korea. This time I chose a tour with a completely different itinerary with a route that wouldn’t even get close to any destination I saw on the first tour. The Northeastern Adventure was introduced in spring 2013 and opened the border crossing in Tumen for western tourists. Up till then the few visitors to North Hamgyong province used to fly in from Pyongyang or entered via Rason to visit the famous Mount Chilbo area. With the Northeastern Adventure I had the rare opportunity to see the Wangjaesan Grand Monument and to spend a night in Hoeryong. Next stops were Chonjing, the homestay village near Mount Chilbo and Kyongsong before spending three nights in the Special Economic Zone Rason. (*Click here for a GoogleMap to give you a better idea.*)
Believe it or not – I got what I bargained for. North Hamgyong and Rason were a lot rougher than Pyongyang and the places in the south of North Korea. The guides were rougher (“It’s comrade Kim Il-sung! / “No take photos!”), the conditions were rougher (no running water and no hot water for three consecutive days – which is not unusual in a poor country, but irritating when that poor country always pretends to be on par with the rich ones…), the locals were rougher. The cities were smaller and less colorful, the anti-American propaganda was less subtle, the infrastructure was less developed. While the southern parts were all about the Korean war, the northern parts were all about the Japanese occupation – down to the guide’s countless stories about Japanese atrocities, some of which started with “Sorry Mr. XYZ, but it’s historical fact!” as the Northeastern Adventure was accompanied by two Japanese citizens. (To everybody’s surprise as most Japanese people don’t want to have anything to do with North Korea.)
Speaking of my fellow travelers: This was an extraordinary group to travel with! When signing up for a group tour you never know what you get. While I enjoyed the Pyongyang group for several reasons (hey Jeff!), the Northeastern Adventure group overall was much more relaxed and less stressful – probably because it wasn’t the first trip to North Korea for anybody, with one exception. Everybody knew what to expect, everybody knew how to behave (at least most of the time), there were no “I am so cool because I am traveling to North Korea!” characters, it was just a great group!
Which brings me to related topic: You won’t find a picture of myself on Abandoned Kansai and, like last time, I tried to extent this courtesy to the rest of the group for this article series – which worked with two or three exceptions. If you see yourself on a photo and don’t like it, please drop me a line and I’ll remove the picture right away! As for you, dear reader: This time the group consisted of thirteen people plus one British guide (Amanda) plus three Korean guides during the first leg in Hamgyong province and three different Korean guides during the second leg in Rason, where the group shrunk to twelve people as one of our Japanese group members had been to the Special Economic Zone before and decided to leave early. (A “Special Thanks” goes out to my friend Mayu, who didn’t join me on the trip, but provided valuable translations afterwards. Whenever you see captions to Korean text on photos – those I owe to her.)

For the first trip I decided to write separate articles for each major stop on the tour, which resulted in more than 30 posting over 10 weeks – way too long for a blog that usually is all about urban exploration. So this time it’ll be more like a classic travel report: eight articles, one for each day; plus this introduction and an epilogue with some final thoughts. Some of the articles will be freakishly long (up to 2.500 words…), some of them will contain rants as I won’t stay away from hot topics this time. Nevertheless I hope you’ll enjoy reading what I have to say – my mind was blown several times during the trip and if everything goes according to plan you’ll make a “WTF?” face at least once per article… 🙂

Oh, and for all you hardcore urbex fans out there: The next abandoned place will be posted on February 25th – an amazing original find I explored almost two years ago!

(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…)

P.S.: I almost forgot – welcome, dear readers from North Korea! I know you don’t stop by often and I doubt that you are regular people who surf the internet after a hard day of work in the fields. But, according to the basic statistics WordPress shares with me, I had 12 page views from the DPRK between my first and second trip to North Korea, much to my own surprise. So again – welcome, comrades!

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I am a bit in a pickle here…

Do I write and publish the article I have been thinking about for several weeks now – or do I keep my mouth shut? In October I went back to the DPRK for a second time, an experience even more intense than *the first trip in spring*, way more disturbing, way more conflicting. On the one hand I enjoyed both trips tremendously, on the other hand I saw and experienced things I would like to share with all of you. But if I do it in an honest way, I probably shouldn’t show my face again in North Korea for a third time…

When I first visited the “Hermit Kingdom” in spring of 2013 I did it with a slightly ignorant attitude, willing to enjoy the experience, knowingly accepting that I will be fooled and restricted. And I actually enjoyed the tour. A lot! So much that I visited the DPRK again in October of 2013, this time the northern parts; North Hamgyong province and Rason.
The guides in Pyongyang were nice and surprisingly open-minded, the food was fantastic, Pyongyang with its high-rise buildings and solar-powered streetlights was a lot more modern than expected, the photography and video limitations were a lot more loose than (almost) everybody claims… and the bowing in front of statues, the bumpy countryside roads, the regular power-cuts outside of Pyongyang, the restrictions of free movement – all of that was commonly accepted as North Korean quirkiness in a combination of group effort and voluntary Stockholm Syndrome; it became natural within hours, everybody always gave the home team the benefit of the doubt. And I was intrigued, I wanted to see and experience more… despite my friends and family universally thought that it wasn’t a good idea, some of them being worried about the articles I wrote about my first trip, about remarks I made in the comments.
Of course I went anyway, fueled by what appeared to be authentic moments – and I still think that some of them actually were honest and unstaged, like the *picnic at the Taesongsan Park & Fun Fair*. I also believe that life in Pyongyang is decent, but I had to come back with a clear mind and travel to the countryside to get a look at the costs of it, because Pyongyang isn’t a typical example of North Korean progress – it’s an exception, a severely subsidized prestige project that only exists because the almighty political elite doesn’t care much about, and in some regards even sucks dry, the rest of the country. The power-cuts in Nampo and Kaesong weren’t the exceptions, they were just small glimpses at reality in the DPRK outside of Pyongyang – and the southern parts of North Korea are quite blessed. The temperatures are rather mild in comparison to North Hamgyong, the economy is comparatively successful thanks to the train and ship connections to China, and the much larger amount of Western tourists doesn’t hurt either…

Group Photo With North Koreans

Fool me once…

I really enjoyed my first trip to the DPRK, but after going there a second time, I have to admit that I’ve been fooled a lot more than I thought while writing about my experiences. The strange thing is: I liked my second trip to North Korea even more than the first one! Despite (or maybe because?) it dawned on me that this trip was a lot more real – a much better look at the current state of the DPRK, yet still just a scratch on the surface. On the first trip pretty much everybody ate up what the guides / guards / guardguides / guideguards had to say, but this time the vibe was different. People behaved even better, but for different reasons. Some were hardcore North Korea fans, others just wanted to allay all the worries our constant companions might have had about us to get a little bit more freedom and insight than previous visitors. I don’t think the minders were blatantly lying to us, but they were controlling all information – what we heard, what we saw, what we smelled, what we tasted. And when you are in almost total control and nobody questions that power, it is actually quite easy to shape impressions just by leaving things out. Some of it became very apparent during this second tour, some of it only while I was reconstructing the experience with the help of my photos, the adjusted itinerary, GoogleMaps and Wikimapia. (I added lots of new locations to my original GoogleMap about North Korea. *Please click here to have a look.*)

The fact that shocked me the most after my return was that we passed three of the biggest concentration camps in North Korea by less than 10 km! When we visited the city Hoeryong right at the beginning of the tour, our guide kept repeating that the city is famous for its three beauties: Beautiful women, beautiful white peaches and beautiful earthenware. I knew that he was bullshitting us just by looking at photos of Hoeryong’s most famous daughter, Kim Jong-suk, the wife of Kim Il-sung and mother of Kim Jong-il – no offense, but when I talk about the beauty of German women I don’t get Angela Merkel associated! (And after this comment I guess I better not return to North Korea…) Luckily Germans are more forgiving and Mrs. Merkel won’t throw me and my family into jail for the rest of our lives. Speaking of which: Hoeryong is famous for another thing, though it’s everything but beautiful – Kwan-li-so 22, Labor Camp 22; one of North Korea’s biggest and harshest concentration camps, where (according to two defected eyewitnesses) 1500 to 2000 people per year get worked or tortured to death, up to 4% of its total population. Maybe got, as the camp might have been closed in 2012 – which means that those prisoners were either killed or continue their sufferings in other camps. All of that I didn’t know at the time when I was spending a night at a hotel in Hoeryong, just about 5 kilometers away from the camp’s gate… (BTW: Prisoners only receive(d) a small amount of the food per day, despite a food factory in the camp’s labor colony Haengyong-ri. Like everywhere else in the country most of it was delivered to the capital Pyongyang, even if the locals and prisoners were starving, like during the Arduous March between 1994 and 1998.)

Kim Jong-suk With Husband And Son Food Factory In North Korea

Get them while they are young!

Other examples for leaving out information we experienced at two kindergartens, where we were about to watch typical performances by local children; singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. At the first kindergarten we walked through long hallways on the first floor with Hello Kitty and other colorful child-oriented images painted to the walls, then we were rushed through a staircase directly to the third floor, where the children were waiting to perform for us. I was able to sneak five meters down a hallway on the second floor and took quick photos of a painting depicting two snowmen being attacked by armed children, a subject that didn’t go along well with the stuff I saw on the first floor. Back home I asked friends what was written on the snowmen: American Bastard and a derogatory play on words about a former president of South Korea…
At the other kindergarten (with a different layout) we weren’t shown much of the second floor neither – and this time it was a fellow traveler who found a room she later described as “a war museum”. Sadly I wasn’t able to see it myself, but it goes without saying that our Korean guides didn’t mention it. They also didn’t mention the huge chariot sculpture in front of the kindergarten. At first sight it looked a lot like a simplified version of the one in front of the *Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace* in Pyongyang, which is all about the future and having fun. The one in Rason? Well, the first child is holding an automatic rifle in his hand, the second one a missile. Nobody pointed out those details…
Chariot of Joy Chariot Of Destruction
Instead we went through yet another musical performance, because North Koreans like to sing and dance – I don’t. Malicious gossip has it that it’s because they don’t have anything else, but hey, they love it, so if it helps the understanding among nations I suffer through 20 minutes of creepily smiling kids at a kindergarten… or a guide singing the national anthem / their favorite NK pop song. Usually both the kids and the adults (guides, waitresses…) are pretty good at what they are doing, which eases the suffering. What really started to irritate me is that you never know when you get dragged into the whole thing. You are never safe… not at kindergartens, not at schools, not at restaurants, not at BBQs, not even on the bus. What is announced and starts as a more or less harmless performance can end with you starring it – and I HATE that kind of attention. At the same time you don’t want to be impolite, so you basically have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. One time on the first trip all the guides, one after another, were singing the national anthem of North Korea on the bus – and then kept nagging all tourists into singing theirs. My only way out was to claim that Germany is so anti-nationalistic now, that it is actually punishable to sing the national anthem without written permission by the government; interestingly enough not only the Korean guides but also some of my fellow travelers from all over the world believed that story… (And yes, the singing and dancing was even more intense on the second trip!)

Hunger Games, The Musical

While I visited North Korea for a second time in October I felt like being part of “Hunger Games – The Musical”: A totalitarian system concentrating all the power and wealth in the capital… and everybody was singing and dancing all the time! This wasn’t the rather cozy Pyongyang bubble anymore, this was a glimpse at a system that is plain and simple batshit crazy. Back in spring I actually thought that the DPRK was a little bit misunderstood and just needs some good PR, that Pyongyang was just a sample of what’s going on in all of North Korea, but obviously I was wrong. North Korea needs massive change from the inside, the mindset of the population has to change drastically. And I don’t blame individual average people, most of them are just doing what they are told to do (look at the communism loving Russians that now hump capitalism like a pet bunny does its favorite plush toy…), they are simply trying to survive without getting into trouble themselves, probably being traumatized by decades of subjugation from psychotic despots! I’m sure it’s not all bad in North Korea, but it definitely isn’t as good as tourists are made believe when visiting Pyongyang…

It will take me a couple of months to write about my second trip, especially since this time I want to have the whole set written before I start publishing it. Like last time I have no political or financial agenda, and I will write about my vacation as I experienced it. I just wanted to give all of you a heads up that this time it won’t be as positive and naïve – it will be full of love for the coast and the mountains, for fearless toddlers and curious language students. But you will also read some completely messed-up stories about extreme poverty and regular power-outs, about electric fences along the coastline and despicable acts towards children, about denunciation, double standards and deception – and about how I will rather never go back to North Korea again than deliberately ignoring or even sugar-coating the things that I’ve experienced…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about both tours at GoogleMaps*.
If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* or subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube*…)

Border guards don’t like to be filmed, yet I managed to tape me walking from China into North Korea. (As far as I know we were the second Western tourist group ever to enter North Korea on foot from Tumen, China!)

At the end of the video you can hear a guideguard approaching me after he caught me taking this video, despite him announcing that it’s okay to take pictures from the bus just 5 minutes earlier…

One of the most beautiful hours I had in North Korea – sunrise at the beach of the homestay village while most of my fellow travelers were still sleeping.

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My trip to North Korea was an absolutely fantastic experience – and so was writing about it!
If you are a long-time reader of Abandoned Kansai I would like to thank you for sticking with me while I went off-topic! The last urban exploration article I wrote was about the *Abandoned Japanese Sex Museum* – just in case you want to jump back there without going through all the DPRK postings…
If you started reading this blog because of my postings about North Korea I hope you will keep on reading. I think I was able to show you a different side of the DPRK – I sure as heck will show you a different side of Japan, too!
From tomorrow on I will go back to one article per week, every Tuesday evening JST (= Tuesday afternoon in Europe and Tuesday morning in the States).
Forsaken hospitals, deserted amusement parks, forlorn mines, desolated resorts, rotting military bases, dilapidated factories, abandoned hotels, derelict train stations – you’ll see them all, and much more, on Abandoned Kansai!

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