When I visited Mt Myohyang (best known as home to the International Friendship Exhibition) in 2014 we went there directly from Pyongyang and returned to the city with no stops en route, in either direction. In 2018 we had a few stops on the way up in South Pyongan Province and one, in North Pyongan Province, on our return to Pyongyang.
For the purpose of categorisation of my posts I have included (or will have when it is written!) a review on my visit to the Ryongmun Cave system in North Pyongan Province under Mt Myohyang while the other stops, in South Pyongan Province, have been included under Pyongsong (the provincial capital) even though two of them are outside the city, one some 60 kms north there-of.
Leaving Pyongyang for Mt Myohyang a series of small kiosks and a street restaurant caught my eye.
Small scale commercialism such as these businesses had certainly significantly increased in numbers since I had last visited the country in 2014 though small commercial enterprise really started in the 1990s, especially in the north and north east of the country where black market supplies could be relatively easily sourced from China, when the country was crippled by famine and the state’s food distribution system simply could not cope. These early forays into the capitalist world were illegal (many still are) but a blind eye was turned on their operation as they provided a service the government was struggling to provide (food!). No doubt the hands of appropriate officials were also greased. Kim Jong-un has, since coming to power in 2011, focused heavily on developing the economy and this has included accepting, if not outright encouraging, these small private businesses in a world where any form of capitalism was generally seen as an anathema.
As I understand it, the state gets a cut of the action (that is, in addition to the bribes likely collected by corrupt officials) but generally it seems as if operators are otherwise left to their own devices. Unlike more established state run restaurants and stores where were state-issued coupons are still in use, most transactions at these kiosks are done in cash, side-stepping the rationing system and widening the already growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, particularly in Pyongyang.
Lest any citizen think that the state run utopia that is North Korea is giving in to capitalism just yet, a couple of kilometres along the road to Pyongsong is a reminder that the utopia owes its existence to the heroic exploits of firm anti-capitalist Kim Il-sung and his gun tooting wife, Kim Jong-suk, who almost alone defeated and rid the country (indeed the Korean Peninsula) of Japanese occupiers in 1945 to create a socialist/ Juche paradise.
Leaving the city behind, we travelled along a pretty tree lined river and through a short section of countryside given over to small scale farming before we made a slight detour, to visit the Konji-ri Revolutionary Site, the headquarters of the Korean People’s Army during the Korean War, which I will cover in a separate post.
Our brains filled with admiration for the exploits of the Korean People’s Army it was time to fill our tummies and for this we moved on to the Jangsusan Hotel in Pyongsong, a short distance from the Konji-ri Revolutionary Site.
The Jangsusan Hotel opened to tourists in April 2012 during the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung as there was insufficient hotel rooms in Pyongyang to accommodate the mass influx of local and overseas visitors for the anniversary festivities.
It is still the only place in Pyongsong where overseas tourists are permitted to stay, though we only stopped for lunch, and I have recently read that it was/is the designated Covid quarantine centre for all foreigners arriving into Pyongyang (essentially only a handful of diplomats since the country’s borders were firmly closed in Feb 2020), being the closest hotel to the city, that is not in the city. As an aside, it is interesting to note that Australian authorities, following a very small number of Covid community outbreaks emanating from city centre quarantine hotels, is only now (Nov 2020) discussing the wisdom of using hotels outside the major city centres for quarantine purposes.
The hotel, little changed since its construction (i.e dated), presented with a fairly unexciting pastel peach and white facade but this was made up for by the rather loud uniform of the doorman who guided us into the building.
The reception area and small shop were dimly lit as per normal while the shop offered the usual tourist necessities, nick-nacks, Coca-Cola and rice cookers for sale.
The hotel’s small bookshop’s selection was limited to works by or about the Leaders, mainly by the Leaders
If the blandness of the reception or the options for reading material does not do it for you then surely the kitschness of the restaurant would?
Lunch was fairly average but certainly hit the spot as we didn’t actually get here until about 2.30pm.
As is the normal, beer and bottled water is included with lunch (and dinner) and here we were served Ponghak beer, produced by a local food company and the second most popular brand in North Korea after Taedonggang which comes in a few varieties. Ponghak comes in two varieties No11 and No12 with No12, which we were served, being the better of the two and, I am told, also preferred by foreigners over the more generally available Taedonggang.
Not being a beer connoisseur, but still somewhat partial to it, I found both brands equally enjoyable. An article by Koryo Tours (https://koryogroup.com/blog/beer-of-north-korea-ponghak) describes Ponghak No 12 thus:
‘Sweet notes reminiscent of honey or syrup flow through, followed by a slightly bitter, hoppy taste typical for the style of beer. It’s a beer you drink to enjoy.’
… and who am I to argue?
As so to Pyongsong – the site of which was personally picked by Kim Il-sung who also named it. The name translates as ‘Fortress guarding the capital Pyongyang’.
Pyongsong is a planned satellite city of 280,000, established in 1969 and located only thirty kilometres to the north of central Pyongyang. Pyongsong, in addition to being the seat of the provincial government for South Pyongan Province, is an important light industrial centre though cars and other vehicles (including military trucks and missile carriers) are also produced here. The Paeksong Foodstuffs Factory (the brewer of Ponghak beer) and the Taedonggang Textile Factory are two of the best known manufacturers located here and these are, on occasion, open to tourists though I visited neither. In 1995 southern parts of the city, including much of the affluent scientific area, was transferred from the administrative control of Pyongsong to that of the capital, Pyongyang.
More significantly, Pyongsong is the country’s largest scientific research and technology centre and attracts a younger professional class. It is typically referred to as the ‘Silicon Valley’ of North Korea by outsiders. Of course North Korea would not draw this crass comparison – it being much superior to Silicon Valley!
With its focus on being a centre for the country’s science and technology sectors the city is home to several colleges, universities and research organisations including the Space Science Research Institute, the Pyongsong University of Medicine and the Pyongsong University of Science. The later organisation is reputed to include a nuclear physics department (incorporating the Atomic Energy Research Institute), the researchers of which play an important role in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Some allege (without much in the way of evidence) that the city is also responsible for a significant portion of the country’s methamphetamine production.
Much of the infrastructure, modern office buildings and more classy apartment blocks in the city were built in 2014 to host local space scientists and their families living and working in the city – 6,000 such scientists are reputed to work at the University of Science alone.
Moving around the city to and from the Jangsusan Hotel and the Kim Jong Suk Higher Middle School, which we visited after lunch (separate post), gave us an excellent opportunity to have a look around this modern and clearly more affluent city than most, outside Pyongyang.
Speaking of murals and similar……….
My next North Korea 2018 – Pyongsong review HERE