In 2014 Kim Jong-un embarked on a programme to massively increase international tourism into North Korea, it being one of the few ways in which foreigners could (and can) legally engage with the country, most other avenues being frustrated by US lead international sanctions. Separately the United States barred, and continues to bar, its citizens from travelling to North Korea, except under very limited circumstances.
A key component of Kim Jong-un’s plan was the establishment of the Wonsan Special Tourist Zone, launched in 2015. This multi-billion dollar project included the construction of a new airport, a ski resort and other significant tourist infrastructure, including hotels in the Wonsan area. While the airport, ski resort and other aspects of the project have been completed significant parts, including the building of hotels (12,000 beds) and other tourist attractions in Wonsan, were delayed and some, even in 2020, have not yet started. The principle reason for this is that under the US lead sanctions foreign investment has not been possible and getting the necessary construction resources has been complicated. A few very inclement winters and, of course, Covid-19 have added to the delays.
Accordingly, Covid-19 aside, back in 2018 there were still only two hotels in Wonsan which accepted foreign tourists and it was a matter of picking the least bad of the two (though the picking was done by North Koreans tourist officials). Both hotels, the Dongmyong Hotel and the nearby Songdowon, are ugly though functional products of the early 1990s to which the passing years have not been kind, externally or internally. Aesthetics was not a big thing when the hotels were built – none of the pastel colours favoured by Kim Jong-un feature here.
I stayed at the Dongmyong, which like the Songdowon, is well situated on the coast, a short walk (maybe 15 minutes) from the centre of the city and a few metres from the walkway to Jangdok Islet.
The hotel has about forty guest rooms, spread across four to five of the hotel’s nine floors, and, contrary to other reports I have read, it does have a lift though like many lifts in North Korea is it faster and easier to use the stairs unless you are carrying heavy luggage.
The rooms were dated but clean and, as I recall, I had no issues with water or electricity during my short stay. The beds were as hard as any in the country though this was not an issue for me as I prefer a firm bed and thus had a great night’s sleep.
Perhaps the best thing about the room was the view, though to enjoy that the window, in need of the services of an external window clearer and a handyman with some WD40, as it didn’t exactly glide in its tracks, needed to be cajoled into opening.
Leaving aside the quality of the window, all rooms are positioned such that residents can enjoy views out to sea and along the coast (north or southwards depending on the room).
While I didn’t realise it as the time, looking northwards, in addition to a very popular coastal walkway and beach (in summer) I had a distant view of Kim Jong-un’s luxury resort/private retreat. Though it was too far away to see anything of interest I have subsequently gone through my photos and ‘zoomed’ in on one to reveal what I think is Kim Jong-il’s former residence, within the extensive compound, and the resorts marina/boat house. The larger buildings in the foreground below are part of the Songdowon International Children’s Camp which I did visit.
In terms of hotel facilities, I didn’t have time to partake of much and the only thing I noticed were some table tennis tables, in addition to a small rather dull lobby shop/ Kim orientated bookshop.
The hotel also sports a sauna and heated seawater pool though I didn’t visit either so cannot comment on them.
All in all the hotel was adequate with the ample supply of kitsch fixtures and fittings that I had come to expect of a North Korean hotel.
While we had a distinctly unmemorable (not bad) breakfast at the hotel we ate both lunch and dinner at the appropriately named Tourist Restaurant, about 10 minutes walk away.
En-route to dinner I received a reprimand (the only one on this trip) for taking a photograph. Interestingly the reprimand came from our bus driver and not from one of the guides. While I was very familiar with the (generally flaunted rule) that photographing trains and railway infrastructure was not permitted I did not realise that this extended to a ban on taking pictures of pictures of trains!
As I felt fairly confident that the above photograph was not in contravention of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s photography rules I sought a formal judgement on my alleged misdemeanour from our senior local guide. My taking the photograph was adjudged to be perfectly within the law and I was able to retain the photograph while the bus driver was spoken to! No, he was not sent off to a re-eduction camp!!!
Dinner itself was par for the course and pleasant enough, featuring a few fish dishes, given our proximity to the coast.
After dinner, which was a little later than usual as we had taken a sunset walk out to Jangdok Islet before eating, I retired to my room and decided to partake of a little of the hotel’s ‘televising’ offering.
I settled on a re-run of a spectacular torchlight display held as part of the festivities for the 70th anniversary of Foundation Day, a few days earlier in Pyongyang. While we saw thousands of participating students gathering for the display earlier in the day and encountered them again, dispersing, after we had watched an associated fireworks display we were not permitted to attend the torchlight display itself, in Kim Il-sung Square.
Lest you think it a little odd that I would take photographs of the television I should explain that this was a ( strange) habit most of the group developed a few days earlier in Pyongyang when we could not get into Kim Il-sung Square, or anywhere along the route of the main military parade, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the DPRK. We ended up (quite a story for a later Pyongyang post) watching the parade live in a coffee shop near the Kwangbok Department Store and somehow started taking photos of the television screen. At least we could prove we saw the parade live (albeit on TV) in Pyongyang, if not in Kim Il-sung Square! I think our guides and the coffee shop staff thought we were mad as I imagine my reader does too!
After ‘taking a few photos of the torchlight parade’ I nodded off to sleep, to the stirring yet soothing strains of the patriotic music accompanying the TV presentation.
My next North Korea – Wonsan 2018 review HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Wonsan reviews – HERE