Given a fairly tight schedule in Wonsan we only had time for a brief stop in the city’s central square, surprisingly not to formally visit and pay our respects at the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il but rather to see a ferry which, apart from a few ‘special runs’, has lain unused here, by the dock, since 2006.
Having had lunch at the nearby tourist restaurant we took a short walk into what, I have to say, was a fairly lack-lustre, bordering on depressing and pretty much empty, central square.
As with all similar squares around the country this is the place where parades, mass meetings, gymnastic displays and similar public events are held. The circles on the ground, in the same vein as the thousands of painted dots on Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, are there to assist those performing with their physical positioning. Now you know the secret to all those perfect lines and circles at parades and other events in North Korea that you see on television!
At one side of the square, that closest to the dock, is a viewing platform for dignitaries while across the square from it is a large building, pictured above, which I have been unable to positively identify. What I can say about it is that it is either a Kim Jong-un post-2014 replacement of a similarly sized building which one source (the only I can find giving it a name) identifies as ‘Youth House’, or it is that building significantly refurbished. I much prefer the drab grey Soviet style older building with its Workers Party flag and slogans to the current pastel blue incarnation.
Also on the square is a modern department store with a shiny glass facade, again a modern reincarnation of an earlier drabber building. Also in the picture below, my observant reader will be able to pick up a traffic policeman (from the same pedigree as the famous Pyongyang Traffic Ladies) standing by a lamp post with not a lot of traffic to direct.
Dockside of the square is a well tended for promenade leading up to the ubiquitous statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. As intimated earlier we did not formally visit the statues but, like everywhere else, their size made them unmissable.
If you have read my separate review on the Old Wonsan Train Station you will be aware that the statues are placed here, by the sea, to mark the point at which Kim Il-sung landed on his return to North Korea on 20 September 1945, having successfully brought to an end thirty five years of Japanese colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Il-sung had left his childhood home at Mangyongdae, Pyongyang, in 1925, for Manchuria, China, and had vowed not to return until Japanese colonial rule had been brought to an end.
In the vicinity of the square I separately captured images of a couple of ‘standard issue’ murals of the Leaders. One shows them at the sacred Mt Paektu while the other depicts them standing in the midst of their beloved and happy people; their adoring fans from all walks of life joining them in a celebration of North Korean industry and the grand, recently built, edifices of Pyongyang.
When this second mural was completed the artists were clearly a little optimistic as the Ryugyong Hotel, depicted on the top right (very difficult to see in my picture here), on which construction started in 1987 still stands uncompleted in Pyongyang. Perhaps not everyone in Wonsan is aware of this minor detail!
In addition to photographing the statues and murals of the Great and Dear Leader I was also able to capture this photograph of a father and his daughter sitting on a park bench, by the dock, enjoying a very pleasant late summer’s day.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post the primary reason for stopping hereabouts was to see a ferry, the Mangyongbong 92, moored at the dock, by the central square.
As mentioned in my introductory post on Wonsan, Korea and Japan have had a long trading history, going back many years before Japan’s annexation of the Peninsula in 1910. Notwithstanding Japan’s loss of the Korean Peninsula after WWII, trade, a large portion of which was through the port of Wonsan, and travel between the two countries continued and prospered.
Much of the travel between Japan and Korea, post WWII, has been by Koreans who had moved to Japan, voluntarily and otherwise, prior to the end of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea in 1945 and who had subsequently chosen to remain in Japan. In Japan, these people, who have retained their North or South Korean citizenship and do not, in the main, have Japanese citizenship are referred to as Zainichi (foreign) Koreans. In fact, when Japan lost Korea, Koreans residing in Japan were stripped of their Japanese citizenship, and in 1952 the Alien Registration Law was implemented, further restricting their rights. While they are now permanent residents of Japan, Zainichi Koreans have few rights and, among other things, cannot vote or get a pension, even ones that served in the Japanese Imperial Army. Japan very much treats these past colonial subjects, residing in Japan, as unwelcome legacies of its former imperial ambitions.
In 1945 Zainichi Koreans in Japan numbered about 2.3 million but today the number is only a fraction of this (485,000 in 2017). The majority of Zainichi Koreans returned to either North or South Korea at the end of the Korean War, with North Korea being initially a far more popular destination for repatriation than the South.
Of those who remained in Japan, the North Korean aligned component came to be supported by Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan while those aligned with the South are supported by Mindan, the Republic of Korea Residents Union in Japan.
The Mangyongbong 92 ferry, and its predecessor the Mangyongbong ferry, which carried goods and passengers between Japan and North Korea played a key role in reuniting Chongryon members with their families in North Korea after 1971 when Mangyongbong ferry entered service. The Mangyongbong 92 ferry which came into service in 1992 was funded by Chongryon, as a gift for Kim Il-sung’s 80th birthday.
Over the years much controversy has surrounded Chongryon, within Japan, and while there is no argument that the Mangyongbongs were used by Chongryon members visiting North Korea and to supply North Korea with money and goods (electronics, medical devices, and other manufactured items) donated by the organisation and its members detractors have claimed its cargoes were regularly somewhat more sinister and unpalatable.
In 2002 when North Korea admitted to abducting several Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and the early 1980s many jumped to the conclusion that the Mangyongbong had been used to transport the abductees to North Korea. A year later, in 2003, a North Korean defector and former North Korean missile scientist made a statement to a US Senate committee alleging that more than 90% of the parts used by North Korea to construct its missiles were brought from Japan aboard the ferry. No conclusive proof was provided to support either these accusations.
On 5 July, 2006 North Korea launched seven missiles all of which landed in the Sea of Japan. Japan responded by banning the Mangyongbong 92 from Japanese waters for six months and made the ban permanent in October of that year, extending it to all North Korean vessels, following a subsequent round of nuclear tests by North Korea.
This ban on North Korean vessels entering Japan remains in force and the Mangyongbong 92 has, apart from a few instances, remained tied up in port at Wonsan since 2006. In 2011 the ferry engaged in an unsuccessful trial cruise (for Chinese tourists) between Rason and Mt Kumgang; in 2017 it commenced, a soon to be discontinued, ferry service between Rason and Vladivostok, Russia and; in 2018 it made a couple of trips to South Korea (under a special exemption from a then 16 year old ban on North Korean shipping) related to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to board the ferry but in September 2019 my friend, Sarah, was fortunate enough to have an onboard tour. She has written about this and included some excellent pictures taken onboard, on her blog which you can access HERE.
Today both the Mangyongbong and the Mangyongbong 92 sit idle as lasting reminders of North Korea’s former lucrative maritime trading relationship with Japan.
To complete our short visit to the central square area we visited an art gallery just off the square. Being a commercial, albeit government owned, gallery where the artwork was for sale photography was not permitted inside. Suffice it to say that the artwork on sale included the usual assortment of landscapes, flowers, industrial scenes, hardworking North Koreans with, naturally, a good smattering of work showing Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il fraternising with jolly farmers, factory workers and soldiers.
My next North Korea – Wonsan 2018 review HERE
Return to the beginning of my North Korea (2018) – Wonsan reviews – HERE