Some photographs are like a Chekhov short story or a Maupassant story. They’re a quick thing, and there’s a whole world in them.Henri Cartier-Bresson
We visited many strange and wonderful places on our tour of North Korea. But this is a short story about a place we didn’t visit. The photo above is of the Hungnam fertiliser factory, which was first established in Hungnam by the Japanese in 1927 and reopened by the Koreans after having been destroyed in the Korean War. We were scheduled to visit this during our brief stay in the city but it was closed for refurbishment. While that may not sound like disappointing news, the fertiliser factory is a popular stop on tours of Hamhung. Officially this is because it represents the DPRK’s pride in its production processes and ambitions to increase agricultural outputs. Kim Il Sung on a visit here famously said, ‘Fertiliser is rice. And rice itself is communism’.
Unofficially however, the factory is popular with visiting tourists because rumours abound that it is not only fertiliser that is produced here but also some of the chemicals needed for the country’s nuclear programme. Having been denied the opportunity to visit I am in no position to say whether those rumours are true. And had we been able to visit I am confident I would not have been any the wiser on the subject, as I’m sure it would not have been mentioned by either ourselves or our guides!
My friend Albert was rather luckier on his 2018 visit (although I guess it depends on how you define ‘luck’!) and had the opportunity to see a bit more of the factory than we did. You can read about his visit in his own excellent blog.
A brief encounter
When we arrived in Hamhung we had parked in the centre and had a walk along a street that passed a large restaurant specialising in noodles (or so we were told), a specialist electronics library and the revolutionary museum. We were followed all the way by a couple of young boys who had watched us get off our bus. The braver one of the two had even greeted us in English, ‘Welcome to our country’, and agreed to be photographed!
Later in the afternoon I believe I spotted the same boy among a small group in the city’s main square. I don’t know if he’d followed us there on purpose or it was just a coincidence!
We were to see this curiosity and openness elsewhere in the city too, with little children peering at us and older ones giving shy smiles or perhaps a cautious wave. It was all very different from ‘cosmopolitan’ Pyongyang or rather weary Chongjin in the north east, and made for a memorable if brief encounter.
A stay by the sea
While visiting the Hamhung region we spent the night at the rather basic Majon Tourist Hotel. This was in a nice setting right by the beach; we could hear the sea from our room. But our bathroom, across the hall, had no running water at all, hot or cold. Instead we had a bath full of water to last us our stay, a bowl with which to scoop it up, and a plastic tub also filled with water which we could heat with a plug-in immersion heater. This arrangement would surely not have passed any health and safety inspections back home!
The next morning we found that the water had clearly come back on in the night. When Chris went into the bathroom the bath tap was running (the staff must have left it open) and the tub was about to overflow and flood the room; he caught it just in time! But there was nothing coming out of the washbasin taps so we heated up the supply left for us in the red tub with the slightly unnerving immersion heater and managed the best we could.
While we had much more ‘normal’ bathroom provision in most of our North Korea hotels, this was the one that stuck in our memories. And of course it was the one we talked about the most afterwards, as it made such a good story.
I hope you’ve enjoyed these short stories from our brief visit to Hamhung, my contribution to this week’s Lens Artists Challenge. Ann Christine has challenged us to tell a story in a single image, which is what I’ve attempted to do here.
I visited North Korea in 2019