Hamhung, on the east coast of North Korea, is the country’s second largest city and a major industrial centre and port. It is the capital of South Hamyong Province and has a population of nearly 800,000 or less than a third that of the capital, Pyongyang which lies some six to eight hours away by road and much more by train. It took me ten hours to get there as we had a couple of scheduled stops, and one unscheduled one, along the way.
Hamhung, like all other cities and towns in North Korea, bares very little physical resemblance to the show-case capital and outside a handful of public buildings and monuments to the Leaders it looks fairly drab and much like it would have done in the 1980s though today many of its ageing apartment buildings are ‘decorated’ with small solar panels, hanging from windows or competing with geraniums for space on balconies. This latter development does not equate to a sense of ‘greenness’ in the people but rather it is their only option to compensate for the chronic lack of electricity which still exists outside Pyongyang, key industrial complexes and other strategically important sites like statues of the Leaders, though many of these now also have solar panels to provide illumination.
When the sun sets the city gently slips into darkness until dawn, a darkness punctuated only by the lights of an occasional passing car, a brightly illuminated statue of the Leaders or the twinkle of an un-shaded light bulb in an apartment building or place of work.
The grand highways and new generation Mercedes of Pyongyang are yet to arrive here, so too the shiny handbags and high heels favoured by the nouveau riche ladies of the capital. Here pot-holed roads, aged Skodas, bicycles and drab, though patriotic, attire are all the rage. Forget about your skinny latté and chamomile tea and be thankful if you can get an instant Nescafe with powdered milk.
While much is written about Hamhung from Japan’s occupation of Korea in 1910 to the present time (essentially the Kim dynasty history) we also know that it was an important commercial and administrative centre for the northeastern part of Korea (then one country) during the Chosŏn (or Yi) dynasty which lasted from 1392 to 1910 – the last and longest lasting imperial dynasty in Korea. The founder of the Chosŏn dynasty, King Taejo (Yi Seong-gye), made Hamhung his home, moving from his capital Hanyang (present-day Seoul), after being ousted in a de facto palace coup in 1400.
Known as Kankō during Japanese colonial rule, between 1910 and 1945 the city rapidly developed into a modern industrial city with the construction, in 1928, of a large nitrogenous fertiliser plant at the seaport of Hŭngnam, about ten kilometres southeast of the city centre, and of hydroelectric power plants on the nearby Pujŏn and Changjin rivers.
Korea was liberated from Japanese rule by the Soviet Army or by the heroic exploits of Kim Il-sung and his band of guerrillas, depending on which account you choose to believe, on 22 August 1945. At this point, based on a post World War II agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States, Korea was divided in two, broadly along the 38th parallel, and so it remains to this day, since 1948 as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), notwithstanding the Korean War (1950-1953) and the devastating death and destruction wrought therein, for only very minor border adjustments.
I will spare my reader from a detailed account of the Korean War (see various others of my reviews for more snippets). Suffice it make a few comments here on the American blanket bombing of Hamhung, and North Korea more generally during the war. Note that the sources used for the next four paragraphs are Western and not North Korean. It is estimated, again by Western sources, that upwards of 2,000,000 North Korean civilians were killed during the Korean War, a large proportion of these by blanket bombing.
Hamhung was almost totally destroyed (80–90%) by American blanket bombing during the war. An early adherence to a policy of not directly targeting civilians was soon set aside by the U.S. and by November 1950 no effort was spared by the US Air Force to obliterate Hamhung and every other centre of population and industry in North Korea, along with the people residing in them. On 5 November 1950, General Stratemeyer, U.S. Far East Air Forces commander, gave the order that henceforth, having previously targeted non civilian targets but accepting there would be significant civilian casualties, “Aircraft under Fifth Air Force control will destroy all other targets including all buildings capable of affording shelter.”
On 25 June 1951, General O’Donnell, commander of the Far Eastern Air Force Bomber Command, testified in answer to a question from Senator John C. Stennis (“…North Korea has been virtually destroyed, hasn’t it?): “Oh, yes; … I would say that the entire, almost the entire Korean Peninsula is just a terrible mess. Everything is destroyed. There is nothing standing worthy of the name … Just before the Chinese came in we were grounded. There were no more targets in Korea.”
“We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea anyway, some way or another… Over a period of three years or so, we killed off, what, 20 percent of the population?” — US Air Force General Curtis LeMay – in ‘Strategic Air Warfare’.
Naplam was widely used. The New York Herald Tribune hailed “Napalm, the No. 1 Weapon in Korea”. Winston Churchill criticised the American use of napalm, calling it “very cruel”, as the US/UN forces, he said, were “splashing it all over the civilian population”, “tortur[ing] great masses of people”. The American official who took this statement declined to publicise it (Neer, Robert M. (2013). Napalm: An American Biography. Harvard University Press. pp. 102–3.).
After the Korean War, between 1955 and 1962 Hamhung and, most importantly, its port and industrial area were rebuilt with significant assistance from East Germany which also trained Korean construction workers, engineers, city planners and architects for future work.
When extolling the virtues of Kim Il-sung our guide presented a rather different version of the post-war rebuilding of the city. She told us how the local people had heroically banded together, under the planning and guidance of Kim Il-sung, and had, at the speed of Chollima, rebuilt the city in no time. Not only had they rebuilt everything, the city had been laid out, based on the guidance of Kim Il-sung, such that, notwithstanding it being an industrial city, the air quality in the residential parts of the city was (and still is) of the highest quality in the world. There was no mention of East German assistance and the fact that factories, etc were strategically placed away from the city centre, at the port area (as they had been previously by the Japanese) was, presumably, merely coincidental, a mere by-product of the clean air plans of Kim Il-sung who always put the welfare of his people above everything, including himself.
In addition to regaining its pre-eminent position in the manufacture of fertiliser (see my separate review on the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory) the city also became the country’s main centre for textile production – substantially based on the North Korean invention of Vinalon. The North Korean version of Vinalon (a rather rough fabric produced from coal and limestone) was invented by Korean scientist Ri Sung Gi, during Japanese rule. Ri wanted to develop it in South Korea after the Korean War but when the South showed no interest he defected to North Korea and successfully completed his development work there. In his memoirs he recalls how,
“To bore a hole into the heart of U.S. imperialism, I have been peering through microscopes and shaking my test tubes with determination”.
On 6 May 1961 the February 8 Vinalon Factory, built by a division of the Korean People’s Army at ‘Vinalon speed’ was opened in Hamhung. Kim Il-sung claimed that North Korea could produce 10,000 tonnes of Vinalon a year. This equated to more than 300 million metres of textiles a year.
In 1961 when Kim Il-sung was bragging about his capacity to produce Vinalon Deng Xiaoping reminded him that the production process demanded a significant and steady supply of electricity. Kim, unperturbed responded:
“We won’t need to use electricity in future. We can use oxygen”
Despite his comments to Deng Xiaoping, Kim Il-sung did have plans to increase electricity production, via nuclear power, but that’s a whole other story beyond the scope of this review.
It is highly unlikely that the level of production claimed by Kim Il-sung was ever reached and even in North Korea where it (the Juche Fabric) is still produced, here in Hamhung, there is a distinct preference for rather more functional and cheaper synthetic alternatives, most of which are imported from China, contrary to the Juche principles of self reliance.
Other industries re-established or developed after the Korean War include chemical, metal, and machinery manufacturing, oil refining, and food processing.
My reader will have noted that, in addition to my usual predisposition to digress from the topic at hand, I have not referred to the manufacture of nuclear weaponry, other weapons of mass destruction or, more specifically, their component raw materials here. This is because North Korea has denied that any such items are produced in Hamhung and I have no evidence to the contrary! Western sources contend (and it is very likely, but not proven) that both the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory and the February 8 Vinalon Factory, together with others of the city’s chemical manufacturing facilities, are engaged in the production of component raw materials including, but not limited to, unsymmetrical di-methyl-hydrazine (UDMH – a liquid rocket engine fuel). Other reports suggest that Hamhung, with its concentration of chemists and chemical industries is also the centre for the country’s export methamphetamine production – now allegedly a good money spinner for North Korea.
The demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, coupled with a reduction in Chinese food subsidies, had an almost crippling impact throughout North Korea and particularly so in the eastern and north eastern districts which had more direct links to the Soviet Union than other areas. While this was bad, the real crippling blow came with severe famine in the mid to late 1990s and the resultant collapse in the country’s collective style food distribution systems. From 1994 to 1998, two to three million North Koreans are thought to have died of starvation and hunger-related illnesses. Hamhung and other places in the east and north east bore a disproportionate share of these deaths as central authorities appear to have focused on selective food distributions to people in Pyongyang, the army, workers in critical industries, and party cadres, leaving the rest of the population to fend for itself in the private markets, which were illegal at that time. It is estimated that around 500,000 people died in the greater Hamhung area.
There is little doubt that this skewed distribution of scant resources undermined popular support for the political leadership and for Kim Jong-il personally. In 1995, a planned coup by military officers was uncovered by the secret police in Hamhung and public anger began to manifest itself in growing corruption, black market activities, and other anti-system behaviour. Twenty years on, while there appears to be very little evidence of support for a change in leadership, within North Korea Hamhung and the north-eastern parts of the country, more generally, are recognised as potential hotspots – to the extent that Kim Jong-un rarely visits these areas, preferring to dispense his trademark on-the-spot guidance, other sagely advice and, some might argue more importantly, money to more receptive audiences. This is not to say that people in the north east have free reign – they most certainly do not and, of course, Pyongyang (and our guides, if asked) would deny the existence of any unrest or discontent.
Today, while things have improved, the ravages of the famine remain ingrained in the memories of the people here and the city lags in development, even by North Korean standards. While ongoing U.S. lead sanctions significantly contribute to the lack of development, I would suggest so to does the current Leader’s preference for other more loyal parts of the country. It comes as no surprise that Wonsan, three hours drive south of Hamhung, was in the 2010s chosen as the site of the east coast’s new airport and tourist mega-developments, aimed primarily at attracting Chinese tourists to the country.
Concentration Camps, Gulags, Torture Centres or Prisons?
As I indicated in my introductory review on Hoeryong, a town on the border with China very rarely visited by Western tourists, North Korea contends that there are no concentration camps, re-education camps, gulags, torture centres, or labour camps of the variety alleged to be there by foreign enemy countries and traitorous defectors. Guides readily admit to the existence of regular prisons and rehabilitation centres of the type found anywhere else in the world and are keen to point out that the prison incarceration rate in North Korea is significantly lower than that in the United States.
While the U.S. has the highest incarceration rates per 100,000 (655) of the 233 countries reported on by World Prison Brief, North Korea is not reported on by the Brief due to the difficulty of obtaining accurate/verifiable data. The U.S. State Department human rights report for 2016 says that estimates of North Korea’s prison population total range between 80,000 and 120,000. If accurate, this would place its incarceration rate (473 assuming 120,000 prisoners) significantly lower than that of the U.S. though still high.
Some guides are amenable to talking with visitors about prisons, some are not – do not push it. On both my visits I only felt comfortable raising the subject of prisons, together with defectors and poverty, with our senior local guides. They said little more than I have indicated above on prisons and what I have detailed on my Hoeryong review on defectors. They were much more open to discussing poverty – which, naturally, can be blamed on America.
Bearing in mind the above, various Western sources and evidence provided by defectors (none to supportive of the North Korean regime, obviously) contend that there are two re-education camps in the Hamhung area including one spread across a couple of sites in Hamhung itself. These are the Kyo-hwa-so (re-education camp) No. 9 with a related camp for women, Kyo-hwa-so No. 15 in Hamhung, and Kyo-hwa-so No. 22 camp in Yonggwang County, north of Hamhung.
In the scheme of things the Hamhung camp is thought to be small with around 500 inmates while Kyo-hwa-so No. 22 (not to be confused with the notorious Prison Labour Camp 22 outside Hoeryong) is significantly larger with inmate numbers estimated as being between 1000 and 6000. Should my reader be interested in more details on the central Hamhung camp (9 and 15) start here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamhung_concentration_camp , exercising caution and carefully checking sources as many of those listed are of a general nature though purporting to support specific events or conditions in this camp. I have not been able to find out much about Kyo-hwa-so No. 22 and one source I came across suggests that it may be closed so I will leave you to your own devices on that one!
I will end this rather (too) lengthy Part A of my introduction to Hamhung here, but to raise your spirits from some rather challenging and gloomy content I will leave you with a pre-sunrise shot I took from the beach outside Hamhung. In Part B of this review I focus on tourist accommodation in the Hamhung area and on sightseeing.
My next North Korea – Hamhung review HERE