“The Sandy Beach Covered with Flowers and Green Foliage.
The Gulls Flying over the Gentle Waves.
The Fishing Boats Appear on the Horizon Fluttering the Flags
of Heavy Catch – the Beautiful Sea of Majon Gives you a New Hope.”
Download the Majon Beach Resort Brochure (PDF)
A picturesque scene, to be sure. Wording you might have once found in a Club Med– brochure, describing a balmy resort, hidden somewhere deep in the Asia-Pacific – Bali, Malaysia, or Thailand. And while the standards described at the Majon Beach Resort may sound familiar, their location will not. For this destination is located in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or as the brochure details more precisely, in the “suburbs of Hamhung – an Industrial City”.
According to the brochure, visitors to the Majon Beach Resort can take advantage of a relaxing summer sojourn in one of twenty villas, each equipped with TV, air-conditioning and kitchenette. The whole family is welcome to enjoy the 1200m long sandy beach, or to explore the local forest, sporting some 4,000 trees. Parents can leave their children at the nearby Soho Children’s Bathing Resort for the day to take advantage of the on-site beauty parlour, hire a boat to go fishing with locals, or even visit local factories such as the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex and February 8 Vinalon Complex.
Located in the environs of North Korea’s second largest city, the brochure explains that the resort is a five-hour drive from Pyongyang, or eight hours if taking the train. To make the journey, suggested transport options include taking a taxi, renting a coach, or even chartering a plane. But quite how this fits with North Korea’s notoriously restrictive concept of tourism is left unexplained.
Today, visitors to the DPRK must be accompanied by guides of the state run Korea International Travel Company (KITC), at all times. Trips must be planned weeks in advance, with detailed itineraries that oblige patrons to keep on the move as much as possible. Freedom of movement and personal time is highly limited, helping reduce the risk that overly inquisitive visitors might cause problems. Quite who the intended audience of the Majon Beach brochure is, or perhaps more accurately, was, is thus, unclear.
With references to the German Mark and photos of a distinctly 1980s hue, this brochure was most probably mass published at a time when the Communist bloc was still standing strong. At a time when for allies, lazy holidays on the shores of socialist North Korea a distinctively attractive possibility. When, it was perhaps even feasible for foreign Communists to explore Pyongyang by taxi and metro, un-escorted – practically impossible for tourists today. But while times have of course changed, interestingly the Majon Beach Resort brochure has not – still being distributed as of 2010 to tourists in the DPRK.
Thanks to the recent decision of KITC, travel to the Majon Beach Resort is now possible for Westerners – with the first group having arrived there in early 2010. Although still well cared for, the resort today unfortunately fails to live up to the de-luxe standards described within its aged promotional material. Running water no longer fills the pipes, the three restaurants lie for the most part empty, and NGO staff make up the majority of the guests. One wonders when the last time the disco or cinema was last used for any form of entertainment purpose. Travel to the resort is currently an extremely arduous affair, with roads among the least developed tourists will ever see in North Korea, and a train track that is reported to take far longer to traverse than the eight hours quoted from Pyongyang.
Perhaps this dilapidation is what motivated North Korea to open its ‘Modern Majon Hotel’ in the same area, last July. Promoted extensively in a recent issue of the quarterly Foreign Trade journal, the new resort apparently boasts ultra-modern features that include a “bathing resort, shower stalls, beach volleyball court and a pavilion on a rocky islet”. North Korea’s state news outlet KCNA described the hotel as a “product of General Secretary Kim Jong Il’s love for the people.” Unfortunately, most of them will never get an opportunity to enjoy its facilities. And quite how the building of such an opulent resort in such a remote and inaccessible location can hope to make any form of financial sense for North Korea is hard to understand. But then again, it is also hard to understand why it made sense to embark on the building of a 3,000 room, 105 floor hotel in Pyongyang during the twilight of the Communist bloc (The Ryugyong, in case you are wondering). Perhaps this time, North Korea will be more fortunate – a two-lane road linking Hamhung to Wonson is currently being rebuilt, perhaps a sign that there are big plans for the new hotel.
Today, Hamhung remains a city of paradoxes. It is most famous for its February 8 Vinalon complex, which produces low quality synthetic fibre that there no longer exists an export market for – better quality fabrics can be imported from China for the same price. Its celebrated Hungnam Fertilizer Complex was built to supply the nation with much needed farming resources, but being connected to the rest of the country via dirt tracks and a train track that is in dire need of attention, one wonders how effective its distribution has ever been. And while The Majon Beach Resort may have once attracted tourists from across the world, for the most part it today lies empty. Whether or not its successor stands any chance of giving Hamhung some much needed rejuvenation remains to be seen.