In 2018 our route to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on the border with South Korea took us via Nampo, North Korea’s west coast industrial city and home to the West Sea Barrage. En route to Nampo we stopped at the Taean ‘Friendship’ Glass Factory. No, we were not stopping there to see a glass blowing display or view their offering of cut glass or crystal in a gift shop. They don’t have a gift shop and we where there to see them making large sheets of plate glass for use in glazing windows. Who doesn’t enjoy a good old factory visit while on holidays?
Our trip from Pyongyang took us southwest along the Taedong River, as opposed to along the main Nampo Highway on which I had travelled in 2014, through vibrant green country side though I didn’t see much of either the river or the countryside this trip as it was lashing rain for most of the journey and I was on the wrong side of the bus, for river views anyway.
As we approached Taean, about two hours drive from Pyongyang, the rain eased momentarily and I did manage to get a few photographs of the countryside and of a set of murals, outside another factory. I particularly liked these murals due to the colours used and the fact that they were very different – not in subject but rather in look – than most others I saw.
Arriving into the factory compound we were greeted by more typical memorials to the Leaders, including the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and images of their (and Kim Jong-suk’s) traditional homesteads, as if to to show the workers that success can come to even those of the most peasant pedigree. Also here was an eternal life monument used, particularly on holidays and the Leader’s birthdays, to pay homage to the Leaders through the laying of flowers and the bowing of heads.
From an introductory briefing, delivered in the visitors’ centre, we learned that the factory was built in 2005 under the personal supervision and guidance of Kim Jong-il and that it is the country’s largest producer of plate glass (some 200,000 square metres per year), the majority of which is used domestically with a small amount exported to China and Russia. We were told that on-time deliveries for a spate of recent domestic projects including Ryomyong Street in Pyongyang, construction sites in Samjiyon County, the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area and the Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort had only been possible due to the sterling efforts of heroic workers and around the clock shifts on all production lines. One thing I have come to learn is that North Korea does not have any ordinary workers, rather they are all heroic workers or heroic worker-soldiers.
I am not sure how many production lines the factory, located on the Taedong River and railway line to facilitate the arrival of locally sourced raw materials and the dispatch of finished glass, has. We only visited one. Some outside commentators have argued that it is rare for more than one line to be operating due to a lack of resources, in particular electricity. I suspect that any operating lines would indeed run 24hrs per day, given the time and cost involved in re-igniting furnaces should they be turned off.
Our guide omitted to tell us, and I saw nothing apart from a picture of the opening delegation in a control room to suggest that the factory was a joint venture with China, which substantially funded its construction.
The word ‘Friendship’ in its name is, in fact, in recognition of the factory’s, and the country’s, close relationship with China. The factory was formally opened on the 9th of October 2005 by the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, and Chinese Vice Premier, Wu Yi.
In 2007, while on visit to the factory, the Chinese Ambassador to North Korea, Liu Xiaoming, confirmed that “The Taean Friendship Glass Factory was built under the direct care of both country’s most senior leaders, and is a crystallisation of the traditional friendship between China and North Korea in the new period under new conditions.” When put to the Ambassador that there appeared to be little happening in the factory and few of its reported 1,200 staff seemed to be around he responded, “Building a factory is easy, managing it is hard.”
After our briefing we moved into one of the main factory buildings in which we were able to follow the production process from the roaring smelting furnaces which transformed sand, feldspar, sodium carbonate, dolomite and other material to molten glass and finally to sheets of plate glass ready for dispatch to construction projects across the country and beyond.
On entering the production line we were immediately hit by the intense heat of the furnaces which was actually very welcome on the cold miserable afternoon we visited. At this end of the line the raw materials are transferred to molten glass and pushed along the line.
The molten glass then flows along, hidden within the production process, converting into solidified glass and cooling down as it goes.
You may have noticed by this stage that there is not a worker in sight. The whole production process, right to the end of the line, is managed and monitored via a bank of screens and other devices in an adjacent control room.
And on the glass goes for another thirty metres or so
before being extruded in a continuous sheet of recognisable glass.
The next parts of the process involves cutting the glass to a predetermined size to meet customer orders or into regular sized sheets for stock, and quality control.
The glass is cut and trimmed by lasers while it is machine scanned for imperfections. Glass not meeting the required standard is rejected via the section of the ‘belt’ carrying the offending piece dropping and discarding the glass onto another line below via which it and off-cuts from the trimming process are returned to the beginning of the process and recycled. It was quite mesmerising watching this part of the process.
Once the glass has been cut into the required size and meets quality standards it moves on to the end of the line where actual workers lift it off the line and stack it for subsequent distribution.
As the glass comes of the rollers it moves onto a metal platform filled with small holes through which air is blown making the glass ‘float’ and thus easier to remove. Where two pieces of glass come down the line at the same time, as was happening when we visited, two heroic workers remove and stack the piece nearest to them first while a third worker catches and ‘floats’ the second piece of glass across the platform for subsequent collection and stacking by the two sackers. There is not much room for error or slackness here particularly as more glass makes its way to the end of the line very quickly.
Having being enlightened in the process for making plate glass we continued on to the Ryonggang Hot Spring House outside the city of Nampo, just over an hours drive from the factory, and where we would be spending the night, as I did back in 2014.
Rain continued to plague our trip though I did manage a few passable photographs of the onward trip
and one, less than passable but particularly interesting shot.
The above photo is of a tank trap – there would have been a similar concrete tower on the other side of the road. These towers would be collapsed, via an inbuilt charge, in the event that the road needed to be quickly disabled – i.e if there was a land invasion from South Korea. Probably a little dated/redundant nowadays, these traps, which more frequently have two, three or more towers can be seen by many roads and beside railways lines in the southern part of the country – more frequently as one approaches the border with the South.
Comforted by the knowledge that the Korean People’s Army had the necessary hardware in place to protect me in the event of an invasion from the South, I checked into my room for a blissful nights sleep.
For my next North Korea (2018) – Nampo review click HERE (coming soon)!