No-one outside North Korea really knows how many people died in the 1994-2000 famine and estimates range from 240,000 and 3,500,000. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the country without its traditional external support, a series of droughts and floods lead to failed harvest after failed harvest and the centrally planned economic system failed so disaster resulted.
So, what do you do when your country is going through a horrific famine and thousands of people are dying of starvation or hunger-related illnesses?
You build a 46km long, 10 lane, highway between Pyongyang and Nampo, notwithstanding that a perfectly acceptable road already existed and that there really were no vehicles to drive on it.
Western cynicism aside, our guide informed us, as we took the Young Hero Motorway back from Nampo to Pyongyang, that times were hard in the late 1990s because of the famine (caused by US sanctions, etc, etc) so the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, decided to build a highway with a view to kick-starting the economy and as a nation building exercise.
The youth of North Korea volunteered to build the highway to show their allegiance to the Dear Leader and to advance his vision. Our guide explained how the youth did not seek to profit from this activity and “all they wanted was sex”.
This was certainly not what we expected to hear and I was surprised that our, to now, demure and proper guide would be so forthright and utter such an expression.
The whole bus broke out in laughter and the guide looking stunned turned to our western guide, presumably for an explanation as to why we were all laughing. Seconds later she turned around, red faced, and tried again. This time being more careful with her pronunciation she explained that “ all they wanted was sacks so that the could carry building materials ….”.
According to the Korean Central News Agency:
“Kim Jong-il said that the young people are very admirable and he would like to seat all of them on cushions of gold and that a monument to the young builders should be erected to commemorate the large-scale motorway at the hard time.”
Instead, the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on 11 October 2000, issued a decree naming the Pyongyang-Nampo Motorway the “Young Hero Motorway.”
The road took only two years to build – between 1998 and 2000 and today is little used (as it would have been then too). It is crumbling and falling apart with little evidence of any maintenance being carried out. Our 46 km trip back to Pyongyang from Nampo (with no traffic to contend with) took the best part of two hours.
Unfortunately I did not take any pictures of the road – we were not supposed to anyway. The attached picture is copyright Business Insider Australia (Allure Media) with personal, non-commercial use of its material permitted.
This is the last blog entry in group (loop) of entries on my visit to Nampo, North Korea. I trust you have enjoyed reading about my visit and invite you to partake of another of the loops on my “Travel Loops” page, by clicking HERE.