After a couple of hours drive from Hamhung we arrived at the Wonsan Agricultural University, on the outskirts of the city of Wonsan. As a university this is one of the country’s most prestigious and respected and one of the few at which foreign students can enrol. I don’t know if any have.
Leaving aside murals and other symbols of patriotism and loyalty to the Kim dynasty (fear not, Dear Reader, I will return to them presently) the things that I noticed first were the gardens and some of the buildings which looked like they had been lifted out of Europe. There was a good reason for this.
When the University was founded in 1949 its original buildings and the gardens had previously formed part of the Territorial Abbey of Tokwon which was founded (and built) by German Benedictine monks belonging to the Congregation of Missionary Benedictines of Saint Ottilien in around 1927, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The German monks were joined by Swiss and Korean monks.
The older buildings here are extremely rare examples early 1900s European architecture in North Korea to have substantially survived the US aerial bombing of the country during the Korean War. I say substantially survived as the abbey church (now part of the No 1 Teaching Building) was severely damaged in the US bombings.
Following Korea’s liberation from Japan in 1945 and the subsequent establishment of North Korea in 1948 the monks abruptly found that their services were no longer required. The abbey was dissolved (in 1949) and converted into Wonsan Agricultural University. At the same time the monks (around 60 at the time) were interned in labour camps where sixteen were soon executed and as many more died from starvation, shocking conditions and ill treatment. Twenty six monks (Koreans) managed to escape to South Korea, where with the assistance of Fr Timothy Bitterli, a Swiss Missionary Benedictine, they reassembled and formed the Waegwan Abbey near Daegu, in 1952.
The Weagwan Abbey remains operational and the Abbacy of Tokwon still formally exists within the Catholic church. While the Abbacy continues to claim ownership of their former Abbey at Wonsan they have no access to it and are unlikely to for some time yet. Learning this I was reminded of the USS Pueblo, at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, which remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy though they have not had access to it since 23 January 1968 when it was captured by North Korea, for spying, of the coast, here at Wonsan.
Today at the university, within the Kim Il-sung developed Juche ideology framework, students learn about farming, agricultural management economics, veterinary sciences, animal husbandry, agricultural biology, fruit farming, geology/mineral sciences, and other agricultural-related fields. Additionally the university has a strong research focus.
On arrival in the car park area we found a large memorial wall inscribed with utterances of Kim Il-sung, a topical mural of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader dispensing agricultural advice and a couple of boards publicly measuring things (common at all workplaces in North Korea).
At this point we were given a short briefing which touched on some of the history of the site as outlined above. If you have read others of my posts or are otherwise familiar with North Korea you can easily work out which bits were emphasised and which bits didn’t figure at all.
After our initial briefing we made our way to one of the campus’ ivy clad buildings, adorned with pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, to visit the university museum.
The museum was fairly light-on in terms extolling the achievements of the university and in agricultural exhibits but more than excelled in exhibits related to visits of the three Kims who have visited here on a regular basis. I was unsure if the high frequency of visits was due to their expertise in, or interest in, agriculture or if something else was at play. Our guide assured me that it was due to the former and this was supported by a large number of pictures, throughout the small museum, of the Kims dispensing their advice and guidance. I subsequently found out that the University is only a kilometre or so from a Kim residence/retreat here in Wonsan.
In addition to dispensing advice and giving guidance when they visited, the Leaders also touched things and some of these, encased in Perspex, are on display, such as these student desks on which Kim Il-sung leaned during a visit to the university.
In celebration of locally produced rice, we were shown a couple of intricate displays produced at the university, each containing thousands of individual grains of rice. The displays portray Kim Jong-il’s birthplace on Mt Paektu and of a couple of slogan trees, similar to those we had earlier seen in Pujon County.
Tucked away amongst the Kim related memorabilia there were some, to be honest less interesting, things related to the actual work of the university, a few of which I have depicted below.
Moving outside again, and in keeping with the Kim focus, we were shown the exact spot (now marked by a special paving stone) on which Kim Jong-un had stood on a recent visit to the university.
After this we had a short tour of the very picturesque grounds which had been planted with trees (including one of the North’s ‘State Natural Treasures,’ a pine tree said to have been planted 1890) and other shrubbery developed or enhanced by the university.
During our walk we stopped at a state of the art glass-house house which was a particular favourite of Kim Jong-il who visited it many times. There were a number of markers on and around the building to indicate where he stood, dispensing his advice and guidance.
Unlike at other educational institutions we visited in North Korea we did not have an opportunity to interact directly with the students here, possibly due to the fact that few, if any, of them would have been able to speak English. We did however see a number of students enjoying strolls in the gardens, dressed in their very smart looking uniforms consisting of the usual back pants, a white shirt and a red tie with the added addition of a beret distinguishing them from other students we saw throughout the country. While I understand it to be a co-educational university I only saw male students.
On our return to our bus, which would now take us to our hotel and lunch, we passed a lotus garden which had been established by the Benedictine monks almost 100 years ago.
My next North Korea – Wonsan 2018 review HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Wonsan reviews – HERE