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.

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Between Pyongyang and Taean
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Between Pyongyang and Taean
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Patriotic murals near Taean

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.

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Memorials in the Taean ‘Friendship’ Glass Factory compound
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Homesteads of the ‘Three Commanders of Mt Paektu’

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.

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An heroic worker sets an example

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.

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Opening NK-China delegation picture in factory control room

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.

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Hopper, on left, releasing raw material mix into the production process
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Controlling the heat and pressure within the furnaces
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Spreading molten glass across the width of the production 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.

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Controlling the glass production process
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Monitoring overall production and recognising high achievers
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Some in-factory encouragement

And on the glass goes for another thirty metres or so

before being extruded in a continuous sheet of recognisable glass.

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Continuous sheet of glass coming out

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.

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Glass being laser cut into desired lengths
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Individual glass plates being moved on for further cutting, trimming and quality control
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Belt in foreground of picture dropping and discarding a piece of imperfect glass

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.

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Finished glass en route to the packing area

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.

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Worker on the left about to ‘float’ a sheet of glass to the other two workers for stacking
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Crane standing by to remove piles of stacked glass
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A close-up of the large inspirational mural at the end of the production line

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

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Between Taean and Nampo (not the main road!)
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Farmland outside Nampo
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Farming village outside Nampo

and one, less than passable but particularly interesting shot.

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Tank Trap

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)!


 

10 thoughts on “Taean ‘Friendship’ Glass Factory

  1. Fascinating look at an industry over there. This is very different to any factory tour I know of in these isles of ours. You’ve really been delving into the very essence of the country on this trip, Albert. I hope you got that blissful night’s sleep. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, we had a couple of very wet days at the beginning of our trip after which the weather was perfect for travelling. Kim Jong-il … I don’t know how he did it! You may recall his dark glasses… the story goes that his eyes were so bloodshot etc due to a lack of sleep from serving his people that he wore these so that the people did not see his poor state and worry about him. Everything he did was for his people.

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  2. “Building a factory is easy, managing it is hard.” – I guess that could be said of a whole range of endeavours!
    A shame about the weather, although I spotted a glimpse of blue sky in your photo of the farming village and am hoping to read that it improved for you the next day? It seems that inside the glass factory could have been one of the better places to be during the rain, and it looks surprisingly interesting – not riveting perhaps, but enough to hold the attention and stimulate some good photos. I like the mural at the end of the line in particular. But I was concerned about the floating glass and wondered why they don’t just stack from both sides?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We had a couple of bad days weather (constant rain) right at the beginning of our trip. After that the weather was perfect for travelling around. The rain had started a bit before we got there and reeked havoc in some southern parts of the country so lots of landslides and roads cut.. we missed out on one stop due to road closures. A number of villages and lives were lost.
      The floating glass was a wonderful idea and worked really well. In practical terms stacking on the other side would have blocked a main corridor due to insufficient space and would have required an additional worker with lost productivity. It is unlikely that they could have sped up the production line to bring more glass down to keep four people fully occupied. Anyway I not an expert in these things but imagine they would have done time and motion studies as they certainly set targets and measure against them.

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