View of a town on a bay with mountains behind
DPRK,  History,  Street photography

Chongjin, a very different North Korean city

While Pyongyang is very much a showpiece city for the DPRK, the same cannot be said of Chongjin. This industrial city in the north east of the country has only relatively recently opened up to tourism. And it’s easy to see why. North Koreans, both as a government and a people, like to show visitors the best of their country. They want us to be impressed by their progress and modernity; they want us to see the nation as the success they believe it to be.

And in some ways Chongjin is a success, when you understand something of its past.

A brief history of Chongjin

Chongjin is an industrial city known sometimes as the ‘City of Iron’. Originally a fishing village, it underwent massive growth during the 20th century as the Japanese made it into a major port and industrial city. They declared it an ‘open trading port’, used for the transport of Korean resources and as a stopping point for resources from China. Its factories produced steel, machinery and chemical fibres; and it mushroomed in size and population, which was, by 1945, around 300,000 people.

Just two-thirds of the population survived the US bombing during the Korean War. But Chongjin remained a major industrial city under the new regime. But then the DPRK was hit, in the 1990s, by the ‘double whammy’ of famine and the collapse of its Eastern European bloc partners, primarily the Soviet Union. A UN official who visited the city in 1997 remarked that Chongjin was:

… like a forest of scrap metal, with huge plants that seem to go on for miles and miles that have been turned into rust buckets. I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

UN report 1997

The Bradt guidebook describes Chongjin’s recent history very vividly, quoting that same official it seems:

‘The economic collapse of the 1990s devastated Chongjin. At first the factories struggled and people became malnourished, but as time went by many plants shut up shop completely. Those who were young, or savvy enough, managed to adapt – just – by engaging in pursuits such as private enterprise and smuggling, or by simply foraging for food in the hills. However, many of Chongjin’s residents, who had only ever known a system where the state provided all and only knew to do as they were told, ultimately starved. The city seemed to have been forgotten by the state and by Pyongyang, and left to fend for itself. The worst was over by the turn of the century, but Chongjin looked in parts like a dystopic wasteland – a forest of scrap metal and sea of cracked concrete, with smoke and dust heavy in the air.

Interestingly our North Korean guide, who usually liked to put a positive gloss on everything we saw and everywhere we went, confirmed that Chongjin had really suffered during the famine. She told us that people were even dropping dead in the streets from lack of food.

Chongjin today

Of course Chongjin isn’t like that now – if it were, no foreigner would be allowed to visit. From what I saw, this is a city that is working hard to better itself. There are lots of very basic apartment blocks (and areas I am sure we didn’t get to see, even poorer than those we did). But there are also newer blocks being built; and the people I saw in the city’s streets, while clearly less affluent than those in Pyongyang, looked healthy and busy. From Bradt again:

Over the last ten years or so, however, Chongjin has slowly begun the long process of picking itself up, dusting itself off and getting back to work as the country’s unofficial northern capital. Factories are slowly coming back online, more traffic – including the previously semi-dilapidated trams – can be seen on the streets and, perhaps most tellingly, the people that call this struggling city home seem happier and more optimistic – like a great weight has been lifted from their shoulders.’

My photos in this section were all taken on the morning of our only full day in the city, when we were treated to a trolley bus tour through the centre. No photography was allowed from our tour bus during our time here. This was a marked contrast to Pyongyang where our guide had been very flexible about photography.

We only spent just over 24 hours here. But, as everywhere we went in North Korea, we packed a lot in, some of which will have to wait for future posts. Here, I want to describe the practicalities of our visit, which illustrate a lot about travelling in this ‘hermit kingdom’.

Flying to Chonjin

There are no scheduled flights here, I believe; and in any case all travel for foreign tourists is by chartered ones. Our plane had a mix of nationalities – UK, German, Belgian, maybe others; but for sure no locals apart from the guides and crew.

Our plane was a four propeller Ilyushin Il-18D, dating probably from 1969. It is one of only two in the country; it was previously the private plane of Kim Il Sung before being repurposed for charter flights. He used it many times in the 70s and 80s on his journeys abroad and also around the country to give his on the spot guidance to his people. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside; so I can’t share with you the tasteful pseudo-fabric plastic wall coverings in yellow and brown, the old-fashioned rose-ornamented woven curtains separating each section and the blue plush seats! Nor can I show you his private cabin, into which I got a glimpse as we disembarked. He had a duplicate set of instruments there, so he could see for himself the flight speed, height etc.

As we had no boarding card no seats were allocated; instead, the cabin crew showed us to vacant seats, rather like cinema ushers. Although I got the window seat I’d hoped for, my view was limited as the window was clouded over; whether by dirt or some fault in the plastic I wasn’t sure.

Front page of newspaper with photo of Kim Jong Un
Pyongyang Times, 7 September 2019

In any case no photos were allowed, a rule that was strictly policed by the crew. So I used the 80 minute flight to catch up on my journal and skim through the Pyongyang Times we were given. This headlined with the approach of Typhoon Number 13, having been published last Saturday. One thing that struck me from the stories was the frequent mention of communal efforts, for example:

‘Tens of thousands of people in the hard-hit counties of Pyoksong, Jangyon, Songhwa and others of South Hwanghae Province were out to repair more than 120 kilometres of roads, while those of Pyoksong County completely reconstructed damaged buildings.’

Note that this was published just three days after the storm, and there is no mention at all of people dealing with the damage to their own homes. Presumably the collective effort and repairs to the regional infrastructure were prioritised over the individual.

Arrival in the north east

We landed at Orang Airport which also serves as a military airfield so again photography was strictly off limits. The air was pleasantly fresher here than it had been in Pyongyang.

Two people taking a seat on a bus
Boarding our bus – note the plastic seat covers

On the bus we were greeted by our young local guide, whose name I didn’t catch (and couldn’t share here if I had). She welcomed us to the region and explained about local photography rules. It was much stricter than in Pyongyang; no photos at all were to be taken from the bus, and she would tell us at each stop what we could photograph. This was a shame, as the first part of our drive was very scenic; although the road was so bumpy that it’s possible that no photos would have come out well even if allowed.

On reflection later I wondered to what extent the ban on photos from the bus was due to local rules and what to her own inexperience. She told us she had been guiding for just two years. So unlike our main guide she might have found it easier to just say ‘no photos’ much of the time rather than give us guidelines and monitor whether or not we followed them. But photography restrictions have always been tighter in this part of the country, lagging some ten years or so behind Pyongyang. So maybe she was just following company policy.

Of course the rest of our day was packed with sightseeing, as is the norm in North Korea. Downtime on a tour is a rare luxury, for two (possibly three) reasons. Firstly, they genuinely want you to see as much as possible of their country, of which they are enormously proud (or at least, they are proud of everything that they allow tourists to see!) Secondly, they are conscious that because you aren’t allowed to explore on your own, free time is of limited use. And perhaps thirdly, by keeping you busy they reduce the risk that you might try to do or see something that is not permitted.

For now I will skip over the sightseeing as I plan to share that in a future post; I’ll introduce you instead to some typical North Korean accommodation.

The Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings

Our base for tonight was the Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings. Neither our Korean nor UK guides had stayed here before; it has only recently started to welcome tourists, having previously been used to accommodate foreign engineers working at the steelworks here. It was definitely one of the more basic hotels we stayed in on this trip. Chris and I had a couple of interconnecting rooms with between them four exceedingly hard beds. There was no shower and no running water, hot or cold. Just a plastic tub full to the brim and a very flowery toilet!

This was our first (but not our last) experience of the lower-end accommodation in North Korea. It’s something you have to accept if you want to see more of the country than the capital. The authorities in each place do really try to provide the best that they can offer to visiting foreign tourists; they want you to have the best possible experience and to be impressed. But their best can fall short of what we might understand by that term. If the citizens only rarely have hot water, how can we expect to have it? You just have to appreciate their efforts, be polite about them, and go with the flow! OK, not exactly ‘with the flow’ since no water is flowing, but you know what I mean.

And tomorrow will be another day, with loads to see and maybe a better place to stay – or maybe not!

I visited North Korea in 2019

15 Comments

  • notablenance

    I always find your blogs interesting! North Korea is a place I’ve never been and don’t expect to ever go to so that makes it even more fascinating. I love all the pictures and descriptions, thank you for the virtual tour! Nancy

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Nancy, I’m so pleased you find it interesting 🙂 It’s great that we can use blogs and other online resources to do a bit of virtual travelling, isn’t it?!

      Btw, this comment has come up as it should, rather than marked as spam or anonymised – it’s all very odd!

  • slfinnell

    I was unable to comment earlier as, well, you know, kids. lol But I wanted to come back and tell you how interesting your insider views are. My eldest researches authoritarian regimes and it’s part of her dissertation. She will be just as interested in what your visit was like. I do wonder how things will change after pandemic in that part of the world. There will be even more to learn i’m sure.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much for returning to comment – I do appreciate it 🙂 I hope your daughter does find this useful. If she has any questions do please ask, either in a comment here or via the ‘contact me’ link under About Me on the menu 🙂

      There’s little info about how N Korea is coping with the pandemic. They shut down completely and quite early, claiming they had no cases at all. I think that’s unlikely, given that all flights into the country come via Beijing and also there’s some movement across the border in the north, semi-sanctioned by the authorities. But it’s likely that they’ve been less hard-hit than many other countries because of the nature of the regime. People there are used to doing what they are told and don’t have a lot of baggage about individual freedoms!

  • maristravels

    What a marvellous post. Like most people, I know little or nothing about North Korea and its really good to get a lay-person’s take on that fascinating country. I look forward to future posts on this area – and more images.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Maris, I really appreciate your feedback 🙂 There will be more posts to follow for sure, but if you’re genuinely interested you can find some I’ve already posted by choosing Destinations / Asia / DPRK from the drop-down menu above. No pressure, just they’re there if you’d like to see them 😀

    • Sarah Wilkie

      They are opening up new parts of the country all the time. I think they want visitors to see the progress they’ve made in places like this.

  • wetanddustyroads

    It is so interesting to read about your time in North Korea … I doubt whether I will ever visit this country (they will probably jail me within 10 minutes, because it’s hard for me not to take photo’s of something really beautiful or very interesting … and it seems there are many interesting things in North Korea 😉).
    If one read how Chongjin transformed in just a couple of years (and according to your photo’s), it is actually quite astonishing!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Corna 🙂 I really wouldn’t worry about the photo thing! I did, before we went, and a friend who had visited told me not to, as there are plenty of things you ARE allowed to photograph so will come away happy I was sceptical but it was true 😀 And besides, in and around Pyongyang the rules are relatively few and not too difficult to follow. Many are what you find anywhere – don’t photograph the military, ask before you photograph locals. The hardest to follow is the one about not photographing signs of poverty – partly because you may not think something is necessarily that and partly because they are often among the most interesting. But it’s only an issue now and then, and I came home with hundreds of photos!!

      • wetanddustyroads

        Thank you for your reassurance … now that I’m thinking more about it, even with all the restrictions on photography, you still presented beautiful photo’s of your visit there. So, I can see that one will not be hindered too much in this regard.

  • margaret21

    Extraordinary, the contrast between North and South. I guess the average citizen has little concept of the difference between their lives and those in tech-savvy, consumer-society South Korea? Is their work-ethic, and their ambition for their children, as expressed in after-school lessons far into the night as marked? No ‘love hotels’ in North Korea then? They were sometimes the places we stayed in. Condoms come as standard! Not sleazy at all though – just the consequence of young couples seeking privacy in a society where living in smaller accommodation with all the family is the usual way.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      No, the average person would have no idea what it is like just across the border in the south. They are brought up to believe that all other countries are inferior to the DPRK, that their own government is benevolent and looks after them well (and in the basics of simple food, healthcare and education, you could say that is true). Some in higher positions or in privileged roles (like the tour guides) will know better, but even if they are envious they could never admit as much, probably even privately.

      As to work ethic, yes it is strong. But their ambitions are maybe different. The collective is so much more important that the individual. So they work firstly for their Leader, secondly for their local community and only thirdly for themselves. But children are certainly driven. There are lots of after school activities and those who show a special talent are sent to specialist schools – technical, languages (we visited a language school here which I’ll write about soon), music and dance etc.

      As to a love hotel, no I don’t think they exist. After all, what local could afford to stay in one? Based on accounts of defectors which I read in ‘Nothing to Envy’, young couples seeking privacy head for the countryside! The only hotel stays for locals would be high-up government officials travelling on business , or the simple hotels accommodating the work teams who go on organised visits to the country’s beauty spots and revolutionary sites – more on those later too!

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