In Part A of this review I focused on a general overview of Hamhung and its history, in particular its development as an important industrial centre and port. I also briefly covered the city’s destruction as a result of American blanket bombing in the early part of the Korean War and the (disproportionately) horrific impact that the mid to late 1990s famine had on the city. The city and its people have been slow to recover from these events and for this reason it was off-limits to foreigners until around 2010.

In this (again longer than I had anticipated!) part of my review I want to summarise the main attractions we visited within the city and in the neighbouring Pujon County and provide what is essentially a pictorial view of interesting things I saw between visiting those attractions … shots from the window of our bus, if you like.

It is important to remember that we had no choice as to which streets we travelled along and in reality we stuck to a couple of the main thoroughfares (including Highway 7 as depicted in my main picture above) with no opportunity to explore the backstreets, the industrial/port area (outside the factory we visited) or the city’s suburbs. We were allowed to take photographs from the bus, subject to the general restrictions on photography in North Korea which I have detailed in my separate review – HERE

Though I am not a beach person and we were there slightly out of season anyway, one of the major attractions, from a tourist perspective, just south east of the city are the pristine beaches along the Korean East Sea (or as everyone else other than North and South Koreans call it, the Sea of Japan).

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Looking out across the Korean East Sea (the Sea of Japan) from Majon, Hamhung

Whether it is because of the beautiful beaches or whether there is a concerted effort to keep foreigners out of the city centre, two of the city’s three hotels authorised to accept foreign guests, are at Majon, by the sea and some ten kilometres from the city centre. The one hotel approved to host foreigners in the city seems to be rarely used for this purpose.

I stayed two nights at the Majon Beach Guesthouse, the more basic of the two options available. It was entirely adequate, especially given the very limited time I was actually at the hotel. It was very much a case of breakfast, dinner, sleep. That said, as you can see in a separate review I was fortunate enough to enjoy a delightful sunrise and walk along the beach (without a guide!), on the morning I managed to get up in time.

The primary reason we spent two nights in Hamhung is that one day was  required to visit the rarely visited Pujon County and Mount Okryon area, about three hours drive northwest of Hamhung. There we visited an impressive stone river and learned about the importance of this mountainous area as a revolutionary site and base for anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters in Korea’s fight to rid the country of Japanese colonial rule, which came about in 1945.

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Stone River – Pujon County

Within, and around, Hamhung we visited the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory, the ancient home of Li Sung Gye (Yi Seong-gye) – founder of the Chosŏn (or Yi) dynasty, the Hamhung Grand Theatre and central city square and, most importantly, the Tonghung Revolutionary Site with its statues of the Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and views across the city.

I have written an individual review on each of these and on our visit to Pujon County/Mount Okryon.

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Tonghung Revolutionary Site – Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il

Other things of interest – or shots from the window of our bus!

As many of the photographs below could reasonably been seen as uninteresting, especially to those unfamiliar with North Korea, I have added a short narrative to explain what they are and/or their significance, as appropriate. There is a reason for everything in North Korea! As the photos were taken from a moving bus I apologise for the poorer quality than I normally like to include on my blog.

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Kim Il-Sung all alone at Hungnam

All cities and significant towns in North Korea have a statue of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il located in a prominent position, generally on a hill overlooking the city or town. These statues are not memorials but rather they were erected such that North Koreans can visit them to pay respect to, and worship, their eternal leaders. This is done on an individual and group basis – so in addition to individuals one sees families, groups of soldiers, workers and schoolchildren and, perhaps most surprisingly, newly weds (in their wedding attire) visiting the statues. They are akin to religious shrines and other religious icons elsewhere. A visit demands the utmost of respect from Korean and overseas visitors alike.

Statues of Kim Il-sung where erected while he was still alive and immediately after the death of his more ‘modest’ son, Kim Jong-il, in 2011, statues of him started appearing beside Kim Il-sung so that they could be ‘worshipped’ equally and together. When I visited in 2014 the mammoth task of adding these statues, together with updating eternal life monuments, murals, lapel badges, and thousands of other propaganda items (all produced in the Mansudae Art Studio, in Pyongyang), was almost complete though some places like Kaesong and Sinuiju, Kim Il-sung still awaited the arrival of Kim Jong-il.

In Hungnam Kim Jong-il never arrived, as it were. The reason for this is that when this statue was erected Hungnam was a seperate administrative area to Hamhung. In the intervening years it was merged into Hamhung which already had its own statue of Kim Il-sung. It was at this location Kim Jong-il was added to an updated statue of Kim Il-sung in late 2012. Accordingly, this Hungnam statue is now one of a very small number of instances where Kim Il-sung stands alone. Another interesting (and I think unique) feature of this statue is that it features Kim Il-sung with his right arm bent at the elbow, sporting a clenched fist rather than the normal outstretched arm pointing to the sky.

Remaining on the Kim theme:

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This mural depicts the birthplaces of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-suk (wife of Kim Il-sung and mother to Kim Jong-il), these respectively being Mangyongdae, Mt Paektu and Hoeryong.    I have inserted a link to others of my reviews for more details on the birth places of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-suk. Alas, I was unable to visit Kim Jong-il’s (disputed outside North Korea) birthplace due to my  planned visit to Mt Paektu being cancelled to make way for an historic meeting/ photo-shoot between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in, the President of South Korea.

Nikkei Asian Review
Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-in on Mt Paektu (c. Nikkei Asian Review)

All is not lost however as in 2019 my friend Sarah was able to visit Mt Paektu so you can read an  account of Kim Jong-il’s birthplace, and Mt Paektu more generally, in her blog HERE.

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Mural of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-suk

Visitors to North Korea who limit themselves to the well trodden Pyongyang, Nampo, Kaesong, Mount Myohyang circuit will come across lots of murals of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il but see relatively few of Kim Jong-suk and hear little of her. In northern and eastern parts of the country Mother Kim Jong-suk features much more heavily as, firstly, she was born in Hoeryong, a small northern town on the Chinese border and, secondly, she became a local revolutionary heroine supporting Kim Il-sung in ridding Korea of Japanese colonial rule. The northern mountains of North Korea, including the sacred Mt Paektu and Mt Okryon, just north of Hamhung, in addition to Manchuria (China) were the stomping grounds of Kim Il-sung, his wife and his other anti -Japanese resistance fighters.

The circles on the road in front of this mural are the domain of North Korea’s traffic police, famous for directing basically non-existent traffic. Many will have heard of and seen pictures/videos of the glamorous Pyongyang Traffic Ladies who, when established, were reportedly hand-picked by Kim Il-sung, himself. The need to have glamorous young ladies directing non-existent traffic with robotic manoeuvres that would seem less out of place in a ballet did not extend to outside Pyongyang so regional traffic police are male.

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The standard set of murals of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il seen throughout North Korea, in cities, towns, villages and seemingly at random throughout the country-side

In addition to this standard set of murals thematically based murals are also seen at appropriate places. In these murals the leaders are generally depicted giving ‘on-the-spot’ guidance on this, that and everything imaginable. As Hamhung is a coastal location the leaders would frequently have given advice on fishing, here. The mural below depicts Kim Il-sung doing just that.

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Murals of the Leaders are invariably lit up at night and today many, like the one above, come equipped with their own solar panel for this purpose. I wonder if the ladies passing by wearing matching wellington boots worked at the nearby fish farm.

Following the death of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, in 1994 and his subsequent elevation to the role of Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea his son and successor, Kim Jong-il decreed that eternal life monuments (Yeong Saeng) be erected throughout North Korea. These monuments, found in all cities and towns and in workplaces, at sports centres and anywhere people congregate, are thought to number around three thousand.  They had the single purpose of reminding the people that Kim Il-sung is with them for ever. When built they were typically inscribed with the words, “Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung is with us for eternity”.

After the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011 the wording on many of the monuments was amended to remind the people that he too (having been appointed Eternal General Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission of Korea) would also be with them for ever.

As far as I know North Korea is the only country in the world where the highest offices (or indeed any offices) in the land are occupied by persons deceased.

The base of these eternal life monuments are typically embossed with carvings of places personal to the leaders such as their birthplaces or their resting place, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun which can be (indeed, always is) visited in Pyongyang. Also regularly appearing on the monuments are depictions of the Leader’s personal flowers – the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia. You can see a picture of a Kimjongilia later on in this review.

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Taejin-do

Taejin-do is a small islet on the eastern side of the entrance to Hungnam Port. While the top of its monument differs from the more traditional eternal life monument, in the absence of information to the contrary and the fact that little else is commemorated publicly in North Korea, I assume this monument is an eternal life monument too.

{update: a friend who visited Hamhung in 2019 has confirmed (based on what her guide said) that this is indeed an eternal life monument}

Hungnam Port was initially developed by Japan, being ideally located for trade with that country. The port and the surrounding beaches played an important role during the Korean War.

A small diversion, if I may?

By November 1950 U.S lead UN forces had pushed North Korean forces back across the border (38th Parallel) but not happy restoring the status quo they pushed on northwards taking Pyongyang before moving on towards the Chinese border. On 4 November China entered the war and assisted North Korean forces in pushing UN forces back below the 38th Parallel again. In so doing, after the Battle of Changjin (Chosin) – a defining battle in the war, around 100,000 UN forces ended up cut-off and stranded in the Hungnam/Hamhung area. With them were perhaps double that number of North Korean civilian refugees who feared for their lives when the Chinese arrived, as surely they would.

Thus stranded and cut-off with the Chinese army in hot pursuit there was only one way out, by sea. Around 100 US ships, including the SS Meredith Victory, arrived into Hungnam to evacuate troops, supplies and ammunition and take them to the South Korean ports.  Rescuing refugees was not part of the plan.

In the end the US relented and, in addition to the 100,000 UN personnel, a similar number of North Korean refugees were evacuated to the South, in lieu of much of the supplies and ammunition that they had planned on taking. The latter, in addition to what remained of the port was destroyed as the last evacuation ships left. How many of the remaining North Koreans were killed by this destruction or the Chinese on arrival is not recorded.

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US destruction of supplies, etc together with what was left of the Hungnam Port area, on departure – c US Naval Historical Center

Among the 14,000 refugees on the last ship to leave, the SS Meredith Victory, were the parents of the current President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in.

Returning to the present.

One of the first things any visitor to North Korea notices is the abundance of grand roads and wide avenues in Pyongyang and the dearth of vehicles thereon. This phenomenon is duplicated around the country, including here in Hamhung. Having become more familiar with the colours of vehicle number-plates the visitor will realise that among the few cars there are probably less than one in a hundred are privately plated vehicles.

If asked, guides will very quickly tell you that the dearth of cars can be blamed on the U.S and its draconian sanctions which severely limits the amount of fuel that can be imported into the country. They don’t mention that even if free fuel was available very few would be able to afford a car.

A deeper analysis would suggest that authorities are actually quite happy that very few of the populace have motor vehicles as it helps limit the movement of people around the country. While people can and do travel within the country there are many limits and restrictions in place with travel into Pyongyang being the most restricted.

Such is the paranoia over uncontrolled travel that for a time authorities were even reluctant for people to have bicycles. Indeed, there was a decades long ban on bicycles in Pyongyang which was only lifted in 1992. Legally bicycles must be registered and display a tag as proof of registration, though this law is often flouted outside the capital. While  I saw lots of tags in Pyongyang (generally affixed to the basket on the front of the bicycle) I saw only a few outside the capital.  Of course the one ‘tag’ that everyone wears, as required, is a lapel badge depicting one or both of the former Leaders.

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Cyclists riding registered bicycles out from the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory. Note the red and white registration tag on the baskets – Picture courtesy of a friend on my tour group 2018

What you will see everywhere is cyclists totally complying with road rules – for instance on footpaths with cycle lanes, they ride in those lanes and only in those lanes and when crossing roads they ALWAYS dismount and walk across the road, at official crossing points only (as do pedestrians) – notwithstanding that there may not be a vehicle in sight.

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Dismounting their apparently unregistered bicycles to cross the road but wearing their ‘Leader’ lapel badge
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Cyclists walking across the road at an official crossing.
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Cycling to work

Staying with the road/ vehicle theme something that you will notice on the arterial roads at the entrance to all cities are car/truck washes. I understand that vehicles are not permitted within certain city limits unless they are clean!

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A truck being washed prior to it entering Hamhung

Hamhung city’s main roads are lined with apartment blocks such as those depicted below and in my main picture above. While the latest apartment blocks in Pyongyang have a very futuristic appearance the majority of apartments throughout the country, including in Pyongyang, are in the ‘boxy’ Russian style and painted in pastel colours as shown here. One thing they all have in common is that the units therein are provided to residents free of charge by the Government (or their employer, who in the majority of cases is the Government anyway).

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Typical apartment / shops in downtown Hamhung

The ground floor of many apartment blocks (depending on their location) is allocated to shops and other businesses. Due to a lack of advertising and very modest signage it is often difficult to identify shops and offices in these complexes.

The quality and size of apartment allocated will primarily depend on a person’s songbun – essentially a tiered caste system based on the actions, status and loyalty to the Leadership of their paternal ancestors and the person themselves (for three generations). Money is slowly becoming an important influencing factor too.  The higher your status the better quality house (and everything) you get. Those with the highest songbun (the elite) would not be living in apartments like these, nor would those with the lowest songbun. Poor songbun invariably means a hard life, without access to higher level education, far from Pyongyang.

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Passing by some less salubrious city suburban accommodation

One way you can improve your songbun, or at least that of your grand-children assuming your children behave, is to increase your loyalty to the Leadership and the country and if you do not do this then it will not be because there are not enough murals, posters and other propaganda items to encourage and entice you in this direction. My reader even vaguely familiar with North Korea would be somewhat surprised if I did not include pictures of such street-side propaganda in a general review such as this.

So as not to disappoint, here goes with a few examples from Hamhung.

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And to finish up, just a picture of a nice flower with a scenic mountain view in the background.

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Ah whoops, I forgot. This is North Korea so this is, of course, a Kimjongilia – the personal flower of Kim Jong-il, rather ironically gifted to him by a Japanese botanist. In the background is Korea’s sacred Mt Paektu where, according to North Korea, Kim Jong-il was born as his father and mother, with their band of guerrillas, battled with the Japanese and ended their colonial rule over Korea in 1945.


My next North Korea (2018) – Hamhung review– HERE

Start reading at the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hamhung reviews – HERE


25 thoughts on “Hamhung Overview – Part B – Sightseeing incl Shots from the Window of a Bus

  1. You seem to have seen more of Hamhung than we did – unsurprising if you stayed two nights rather than one, even if you spent much of that time out of the city. I’m looking forward to reading about that part of your trip in particular as yo covered ground that we didn’t 🙂

    Thank you for including a link to my blog (although I have to say that I’ve as yet not noticed any readers coming to me from similar links – have you?) It’s such a shame you didn’t get to Mount Paektu (among other things you would have been able to photograph another example of Kim Il Sung standing alone, at Sinuiju!)

    By the way, we were told that the tower on Taejin-do is indeed an Eternal Life tower so your guess is correct 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am not sure we did anything more than you did Sarah other than the Pujon sidetrip… just spent more time in bus .. remember we didn’t get in till rather late on day one. I will update my note on Taejin-do based on your guide’s advice. I have just had a look at stats and a couple of links to your blog have been followed twice each…. remember I have a very modest readership….

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Malc. Ill have a review on Stone River soon….. 🙂 Yes, sadly little is known about the Korean War .. which was arguably worse than its more famous successor .. Vietnam. Certainly the same horrendous excesses (with nil return) were made in Vietnam.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Several years ago I met a recipient of a Victoria Cross for his efforts in the Korean War. His name was Bill Speakman (if you want to look him up) and we had quite a conversation. He never had one good word to say about those who were in charge – neither militarily nor politically. He would have probably been in his late 70s/early 80s then, and his fire was still burning. No wonder he won a VC.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for the head’s up on Bill Speakman – certainly a worthy recipient which cannot be said for many who lead and participated in that war who were also honoured What I find especially interesting is that he is buried in the UN cemetery in Seoul though he lived and died in the UK. He wanted to be with his fallen Korean War mates.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I knew that he had died, but I didn’t realise that he was buried over there. Says it all really.

            While we’re on the subject, on the very same day that I was speaking to Bill Speakman I also had a conversation with Bill Millin who was the piper leading the British troops ashore on D-Day. On the march to Pegasus Bridge the Germans could have shot him at any time, but they didn’t because they thought he was mad. Another interesting conversation and another remarkable man.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed your further insight into this far-flung part of the world, Albert. They’re really into their murals over there, aren’t they? They see to be all over the place, but I guess it’s a good way to put a message across. At least they’re lit in an eco friendly way.
    I love your photos too. The one of the sea view from Majon is beautiful and wonderfully atmospheric. It must have been even more so if you were standing on a pristine beach at the time. Well done!

    Like

    1. Alli, thank you for your wonderful feedback.

      The murals, statues and such like stand out because (apart from I think it is now six billboards in Pyongyang advertising a local car and small window posters for things like the opera or mass games) there is no commercial advertising in North Korea. The murals and pastel coloured houses bring colour to what would otherwise be a very grey and depressing places … If they had the advertising, bright window displays, etc that we have the murals would be barely noticeable.

      In terms of they being eco friendly…..

      There is absolutely minimal waste, everything is recycled, they use lots of solar, their train system is mostly electrified, they have minimal possessions , there are no coal or oil fired electric production plants of factories, bright lights are rare, their oil consumption is minimal, use of plastic bags rare and where you get them you pay many dollars for one that we would pay 20c for (I made mistake of asking for one in Pyongyang store and the bag cost much more than the 6-7 items I had bought to put in it!) and I could go on.
      While this is all good from an eco prospective the primary reason they have/ do not have these things is that they cannot afford alternatives .. the economy is (and has been since the early 90s at least) on the verge of collapse due to US lead sanctions and the continuous physical threat they feel they are under from the US necessitating high expenditure or military/arms. These problems are exacerbated by floods and droughts.

      It is all very sad and need not be that way for reasons you probably already know.

      I will have more sunrise/beach photos in my next NK review.

      Like

      1. I see what you mean about the murals, Albert. They doubless do add some much-needed colour. But my goodness, I hadn’t realised quite what a huge impact all the international politics was having on them. Things are never quite as cut and dried as you imagine are they?

        Liked by 1 person

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