After what turned out to be a four hour drive from Hamhung (as opposed to the expected three), due to problems with one of our buses we arrived at the entrance to Mt. Ongryon park in the Pujon Highlands, one of the ‘Eight Great Sights of Korea’. Here we met our local guide for our short walk to the Stone River and to some very special trees. The bus trip, which I have written about in two separate reviews (Part A HERE and Part B HERE), while at times gruelling, was scenically beautiful and gave us some insight into everyday life (road maintenance in particular!) in this remote and rarely visited part of North Korea.
While we were all excited to see the Stone River, and perhaps more so to hear what our guides would say about it, we were also somewhat famished as it had been a long time since breakfast. As such, the first stop on our walk was just a couple of hundred metres into the forest. Here we had a welcome picnic lunch by a small stream, hidden in the trees – just as anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters might have done here 80 plus years earlier.
After our lunch, washed down by a beer, our guide lead us further into the forest, for about fifteen minutes along a well made and easily walked path, until we came to a clearing.
Here, in addition to a large rock inscribed with some quotations from Kim Il-sung, there was a large mosaic mural of the young Kim encouraging local anti-Japanese guerilla fighters and guiding them in what was necessary to beat the Japanese – with a view to ending their colonial rule in Korea.
Note: In this review ‘Korea’ refers to the full peninsula, so that is the current North and South Koreas.
I will not go into the history of why the Japanese were in Korea (thank goodness, I hear you say). Suffice it to say that it became a Japanese colony in 1910 (after years of war, intimidation and manipulation by the Japanese) bringing to an end the Yi/Joseon dynasty which had ruled Korea since 1392.
While the primary purpose of our visit here was to see the Stone River our guide, naturally for her, assumed we would be more interested in how the Great Leader detested and, almost single handedly, stood up against, fought against and eventually ended Japanese rule in 1945.
While we admired the mural our guide told us how, throughout 35 years of occupation and subjugation, Japan’s interest in the Peninsula was purely selfish and downright criminal. We were told how the Korean people had been ruthlessly enslaved and exploited, as were the country’s resources. Added to this, its history was rewritten and programmes of cultural genocide and assimilation were enacted through book burnings, a prohibition on the use of the Korean language in universities, a banning of Korean movies, and the like while Korean families were ‘graciously allowed’ to choose Japanese surnames. About 85% ‘chose to’ adopt Japanese names. Those that ‘choose not to’ change their names had no access to government services, down to such things as postal delivery.
The pièce de résistance came with the onset of World War II when around 725,000 Korean workers were made to work in Japan and its other colonies and hundreds of thousands of Korean women were forced into work as ‘comfort women’—sexual slaves who served in military brothels, not only in Korea but throughout the region.
Our guide told us how the then thirteen year old Kim Il-sung rebelled against this odious subjugation and how he left his home at Mangyongdae (on the outskirts of Pyongyang) in 1925 not to return to Pyongyang until ‘he’ had liberated Korea in Oct 1945. I was reminded of a mural at Mangyongdae showing the young Kim being waved off by his parents.
Other, non North Korean, historians would suggest the Korea was liberated from Japan following its defeat in World War II and the efforts of the Soviet Red Army. Alas, Korea did not remain united or independent for long and one occupier was soon replaced by two.
Having received this briefing from our guide it was time to move on and after a further five minutes walk we finally arrived at the Stone River, spectacularly cutting its way between a thick forest of pine trees. We were very fortunate with the weather on our visit as this mountainous area is often shrouded in cloud or mist.
Our local guide and Mr Ryu Jong Bae, Director, Management Office of Pujon Revolutionary Battle Sites advised that the Stone River was a natural phenomenon and, to my surprise, there was no claim that Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong –suk, anti-Japanese revolutionaries, the army or heroic Korean workers played any part in its creation. That said, we were told that the current Leader, Kim Jong-un, had personally identified it and the surrounding area as having tremendous tourist potential and that he had plans to build a resort here so that tourists could marvel at the natural beauty and, naturally, at the same time become immersed in the area’s revolutionary history.
The river rocks, some of them up to four metres across, moved, in peri-glacial conditions during the last Ice Age, from the upper reaches of the 2,164 metres high Mt Ongryon into what was a natural ravine to form this 70-120 metres wide river like feature which is currently visible for a length of around 700 metres with a further 1.3 kilometres hidden under vegetation. The slope of the river is about 10 degrees making it similar some of the Vitosha Mountain stone rivers in Bulgaria and steeper than stone rivers at Mount Kent on the Falklands Islands, two better known stone rivers areas which I have yet to see.
The Stone River is between four and five metres deep and what makes the whole thing fascinating (and classifies it as a river) and eerie at the same time is that there is an actual river at the base of the stones which can be distinctly heard, giving the impression that the everything is moving, especially if you close your eyes and just listen. We were told that the this motionless torrent of rock stopped moving about 6,000 years ago.
While we were permitted to leave the raised platform/ path across the river I did not feel the urge to twist my ankle, or worse, clambering across rocks with often large crevices between them for no obvious advantage and, of course, I wanted to be able to continue on to see the slogan trees we had been briefly told about earlier, at the mural.
The slogan trees, we were shown a couple, were about a further five minutes walk from the Stone River.
Our guide explained that anti- Japanese guerrilla fighters, in the 1930s, used to carve slogans onto three trunks to uplift and encourage each other in their heroic struggle. These slogans took one of two forms, those exalting Kim Il-Sung / Kim Jong-suk such as ‘General Kim Il-Sung is the nation’s sun!’, ‘Long live Kim Jong-Suk, the anti-Japanese woman commander!’, and ‘Hurrah for the Shining Star of Paekdu Mountain (actually Kim Jong-il) and those deriding the Japanese such as ‘Down with Japan’s imperialism’, ‘Defeat the Japanese fascist, warlords’, ‘Hurray for the victory of Anti-Japanese War’, and ‘Youth of Korea, come promptly and strongly participate in the anti-Japanese war Let’s do it ‘.
Referring to slogan trees exalting the Leaders, Kim Jong-il, year’s later, commented, “ The slogan tree ……. shows that during the anti-Japanese revolutionary struggle, revolutionary fighters had a thorough view of revolutionary leadership and worshiped and worshiped them. I can understand it. ”
Unfortunately, I cannot recall what the messages on the actual trees we saw say.
North Korea considers these slogan trees, found at various locations around the country, to be national treasures that are ‘revolutionary legacies’ of Korea’s anti-Japanese guerrillas and it goes to great lengths to protect them, both from the elements and accidental / deliberate damage and destruction. Such measures include building cages around the inscribed part of the tree (most common), armed guards, sprinklers and firebreaks and just simply banning local people access to areas containing the trees. We were told how fearless soldiers have given up their lives to protect some of these trees from fire.
Lest you feel inclined to carve your name or a slogan of your own on or otherwise damage, any of the slogan trees, or the trees around them, think again as such damage is punishable by death or a long period of detention in a North Korean prison.
Unsurprisingly, some contend that all the slogan trees in North Korea are fake or at best most are fake and some are re-constructions.
Had we had more time (or I suspect, more correctly, buses that could have made the final ascent – it being to far to walk in the time we had) we would have been able to go up to the top of the mountain and see, in addition to sweeping views (similar to what we had seen from the look-out we stopped at on our journey here), the remains of a secret camp constructed and used by anti-Japanese guerrillas in their heroic struggle against Japanese occupation. Kim Jong-suk is said to have personally used one of the huts in this camp, the one pictured below (c. Koroyogroup.com) built into an overhang near the summit of the mountain.
While in Pujon County, according the KCNA (Korean National News Service), ‘Kim Jong-suk mercilessly wiped out enemies with a crack shot marksmanship’. It goes on to comment that ‘She was a genuine woman revolutionary and competent political operative who deeply loved the motherland, people and comrades-in-arms’. I have written more about this anti-Japanese war heroine who was wife of Kim Il-sung and mother to Kim Jong-il in my Hoeryong reviews which start HERE, should you be interested.
As time had now run out we retraced our steps back to our bus for the return trip to Hamhung, where we still had a couple more stops to make before heading back to the hotel.
My next North Korea (2018) – Hamhung review– HERE
Start reading at the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Hamhung reviews – HERE