When the fairly typical western style Wonsan (now Old) Train Station was opened in 1914 by the Chosen Government Railway it was certainly nothing special, indeed it was somewhat plain and utilitarian – unremarkable. A momentous event in 1945 would change its status for ever.

When Kim Il-sung left his childhood home at Mangyongdae, Pyongyang in 1925 at the tender age of 13, for Manchuria, he vowed not to return until Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula had been brought to an end. There is no indication that, at that time, he envisioned Japan being replaced by himself as ruler of the country and the thought of a divided Korea would not have entered his mind.

Our guide advised us that for the next twenty years Kim Il-sung, ably assisted by his heroic wife, led guerrilla fighters throughout the northern part of the country and in Manchuria, China until they defeated the Japanese occupiers in 1945. Our guide forgot to mention that Japan’s defeat in World War II and the efforts of the Soviet Red Army, within Korea, may also have had a part to play in the liberation of the Korean peninsula.

By whatever means, in 1945 the Japanese had been booted out of Korea and Kim Il-sung could return to Pyongyang.

On arrival in Manchuria, in around 1925, Kim Il-sung completed his early education and became involved in a local youth communist association. He was arrested and jailed for his activities with that group in 1929–30. It was after his release from prison that, still based in Manchuria, he joined various Korean guerrilla resistance movements against the Japanese occupation of Korea including the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army – a guerrilla group under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, of which Kim was by then a member.

Kim Il Sung (seated front-left) among guerrilla fighters

Kim held various roles of increasing superiority within the army and proved a worthy and successful operator, to the extent that the Japanese regarded him as one of the most effective and popular Korean guerrilla leaders, adding him to their most wanted lists as ‘Tiger’.  Pursued by the Japanese, ‘Tiger’ escaped to the Soviet Union where he and the guerrillas that had fled with him were retrained and in 1942 assigned to a special unit within the Soviet Red Army. Kim Il-sung was quickly recognised by the Soviet military hierarchy and soon became a major in the Red Army, in which he served until the end of World War II in 1945.

As noted earlier, the end of World War II coincided with the end of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula but it also saw the split of Korea into two, a crude division, broadly along the 38th parallel. The northern part of the peninsula came under the control of the Soviet Union while the United States assumed control of the southern part.

By war’s end Stalin had become aware of Kim Il-sung and other Korean fighters within the Red Army and, in need of a ‘puppet-leader’ for the Soviet controlled part of the peninsula, he appointed Kim (supported by other Soviet trained Koreans) to establish a provisional communist government there. Kim Il-sung did not become the puppet leader that Stalin had envisaged but that’s another story beyond the scope of this post.

On this appointment Kim (and the others) were literally shipped off from the Soviet Union to take up their roles in Pyongyang. The Soviet ship carrying the new leader and senior officials docked in Wonsan from which Kim made his triumphant entry into Pyongyang, via train.

Getting back to Wonsan.

On 19 September 1945 after 20 years in exile Kim Il-sung arrived into Wonsan where he remained until his return to Pyongyang where he delivered a carefully orchestrated (by the Soviet Union) ‘welcome home’, presidential style, speech on 14 October 1945.

Kim Il-sung addresses his adoring subjects on his return to Pyongyang in 1945

While in Wonsan Kim took up lodgings in the guesthouse adjacent to the station. Based on our tour of the guesthouse and some buildings to the rear it transpired that Kim and his entourage took over the whole place, which has been restored (indeed reconstructed – see later) to how it looked when Kim Il-sung was in residence.

Railway guesthouse where Kim Il-sung stayed on his return to Korea in 1945

When it was time to leave for Pyongyang, Kim Il-sung made his way across the yard to Wonsan Station where he secured a third class ticket and boarded a regular train to the capital.

During the Korean War the station and guesthouse were both obliterated by the US Air Force in its indiscriminate blanket bombing crusade which destroyed over 80% of all buildings in North Korea and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

A new train station was subsequently built in the Yangji-dong neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city and this site was forgotten about.

In 1975, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation and his return to Korea via Wonsan the former station and guesthouse were rebuilt – not as an operating guesthouse or station (there are no tracks) but rather as a revolutionary site, in memory of the Great Leader.

Old Wonsan Station – with the name in Chinese script – reconstructed

The station was reconstructed and furnished exactly as it would have been in 1945, down to including 1945 timetables on the wall. The only addition in the ticket/waiting hall is a portrait of Kim Il-sung. One thing particularly worthy of note is that the station name ‘Wonsan’, outside above the entrance door, is in Chinese script.  I have been unable to ascertain why this is so and would love to hear from you if you know.

Old Wonsan Station ticket windows and 1945 train timetables
Old Wonsan Station with portrait of Kim Il-sung

Across the non-existent track, at the rear of the station is a large shed containing a refurbished locomotive and carriage. The carriage is the Sentetsu third class carriage in which Kim Il-sung sat on his return to Pyongyang and the locomotive, a Sentetsu Pashini -3, is the one which hauled his train.

Sentetsu Pashini -3 locomotive used on the train taking Kim Il-sung to Pyongyang in 1945
The Sentetsu third class carriage in which Kim Il-sung sat on his return to Pyongyang in 1945

Back out at the front of the station is an addition which was not here in 1945, a large stone tablet inscribed with the words of a poem written by Kim Il-sung about his revolutionary exploits and noble virtues. Yes, writing poetry was one of the Great Leader’s many talents.

A poem written by Kim Il-sung

My next North Korea – Wonsan 2018 review  HERE

Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Wonsan reviews – HERE


6 thoughts on “Old Wonsan Train Station

    1. Sorry for my tardy response Adam. Your feelings are spot on though the eery aspect fades a bit when you are actually there but is still ever present. Things are very different there. By way of comparison I visited the old Soviet Union pre collapse (Moscow, Leningrad ,Tblisi and Sochi and NK 2018 is more eery and strange than I found the Soviet Union in the early 80s. I sensed that in the Soviet Union the guides and minders had doubts about what they were telling us and were a lot less sincere ( some might say brainwashed) than those were engaged with in NK.

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  1. They are so lucky in the UK never to have lived in a divided country, under foreign rule, Albert. Unless you go back to the Romans, of course 🙂 It seems so unnatural to me and so thoughtless the way the map is redrawn on a whim. And yet it’s not unknown to my Polish family, and we only have to look at Ireland, divided against itself for so many years.

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    1. Totally agree re arbitrary borders. In this case the division was supposed to be temporary . I won’t go into why I feel it still exist but Koreans north and south are not to blame. Foreign interference is rarely a good thing.

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  2. Fascinating – we didn’t see any of this while in Wonsan. I have to say that I would have found it considerably more interesting than the apple farm we went to, which they seemed to be trialling as a tourist sight – even our experienced NK guide had never been there

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