How did a small North Korean township look back in the late 1990s, in the already bygone era of the beloved Marshal Kim Jong Il?
Let us look at the layout of one particular place: the city of Hoeryong, located on the border with China (i.e. the northernmost part of North Korea).
To the outside world, the city is largely known for two reasons. First, it is the birthplace of Kim Jong Suk, the “Mother of Korea,” Kim Il Sung’s first wife and mother of his firstborn child, the future Generalissimo Kim Jong Il. She was born here in 1917, but a few years later left the city because her family moved to China. Second, Hoeryong for decades has been the location of North Korea’s second-largest political prison camp. Camp 22, located in the vicinity of the town, was closed in 2012, but for a long time its presence was much felt in Hoeryong.
…it is always possible to claim that the foreigners flock to the city to pay their tribute to the “Mother of Korea”
The decision to close the camp might have prompted another change in Hoeryong’s standing: the town was partially opened for foreign visits. It makes sense: being the birthplace of one of North Koreas’s secular saints, it provides a wholesome ideological message – and it is always possible to claim that foreigners flock to the city to pay their tribute to the “Mother of Korea.” It is also a happy coincidence that the town has no military enterprises (well, it produces tobacco for the military, but this is hardly a secret technology). The closure of Camp 22 therefore removed the last obstacle which would prevent the area from being open to fee-paying foreign visitors (partially and conditionally, of course).
Hoeryong is a township with a population of around 60,000 people. Technically, the city population is considered much larger because outlying mountains and villages are officially considered part of Hoeryong, but the town itself is quite small: two streets, each a couple of kilometers long, running alongside the shallow Hoeryong stream. There is no public transportation inside the city – and, frankly, it is not necessary: one can walk the entire (nameless) main street within 20 minutes.
As with any other North Korean city, Hoeryong has a symbolic and ritualistic center, a large square in which one can see a statue of Kim Jong Suk. In nearly all North Korean towns, this area would be dominated by a statue of the late leader Kim Il Sung. However, Hoeryong, being Kim Jong Suk’s native town, is one of a very few notable exceptions in this regard.
The central square is surrounded by the major seats of power in the town: the offices of the town’s Party Committee and the offices of the local People’s Committee (roughly equivalent to a town council). The headquarters of the regular and political police do not face the square, but are close by. The square also plays host to a number of other important political institutions, including what was once considered the premiere restaurant in the city. Until the proliferation of privately owned eateries in the late 1990s, the entire city had only three or four public restaurants.
The square is used for all kinds of events celebrating the great deeds allegedly committed by the Kim family, Party and State. This is where townspeople are expected – indeed, required – to gather during official celebrations. They march through the square with proper slogans, listen to an address of the local party bosses and then go home, having demonstrated their unwavering loyalty to the Leader and Nation.
The emergence of a market revitalized the area
In the 1990s though, as the North Korean economy fell apart, such events became increasingly rare: The people of Hoeryong were too busy trying to make ends meet. The major center of unoficial money-making activities is located close by. In around 2000, a large space hitherto occupied by a local primary school was redeveloped to serve as Hoeryong’s central market. It was an area where 1-2,000 merchants from Hoeryong and its vicinity bought and sold all kinds of foodstuffs and other consumption goods. The merchandise on sale sometimes included quite dangerous items, for instance DVDs of South Korean origin and other foreign movies.
The emergence of a market revitalized the area. Some houses began to rent space to be used for storage by the merchants, tiny private inns appeared, and many women in the vicinity of the market started cooking food for sale. Predictably, a number of private restaurants sprung up as well.
Rich merchants and wholesale dealers do not often go to the markets to conduct business, preferring to carry out larger transactions in the comfort and security of their own homes. Nonetheless, even rich merchants wanted to live near the market, which was the focal point of the town’s economic activities. Given this, one should not be surprised that the vicinity of the market is also the most expensive area in the town, with prices of better house exceeding $10,000. Technically, it is illegal to buy and sell real estate in Hoeryong (and across the rest of North Korea). However, with the growth of grassroots capitalism, this ban has been flouted with relative impunity. As a result, anybody with enough money could easily buy a house, whether it be a relatively luxurious apartment or a derelict hut on the town’s outskirts (such a hut would probably cost around $1,500 nowadays).
HOERYONG IN HARD TIMES
During the great famine of 1996-99, Hoeryong fared remarkably well. In the mining villages nearby, some people starved to death after the mines had been closed, but there was little if any starvation in Hoeryong itself. The town’s closeness to the Sino-Korean border helped tremendously – in the 1990s, a significant number of people living in the town got involved in Sino-Korean trade, a highly profitable phenomena (if slightly risky). Such smuggling and trade kept many people alive and sometimes well fed.
While the Hoeryong market can be seen as a triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit, the still functioning Kim Jong Suk Revolutionary Museum was a relic from a bygone era – a time of ideological indoctrination and intense personality cults. The museum included the house where Kim Jong Suk was alleged to have been born. Well, elder inhabitants of Hoeryong insist that this house was actually built around 1970 when the North Koreans decided to make the hitherto little known Kim Jong Suk the object of an intense cult of personality. Since the 1970s, the Museum has been the site of obligatory pilgrimage to which groups of North Koreans are dispatched on state-sponsored tours in large numbers. This compulsory ideological “tourism” continue into this day, albeit on a smaller scale than before.
This hotel’s comforts would be seen as barely tolerable for the average South Korean, but it is luxurious by North Korean standards
Ideological tourists are housed in a number of inns, the best of such inns being located surprisingly far away from the museum and center of town, near the city boundary. In the downtown area, there are also a number of lower quality inns as well. Usually a room in an inn is shared between four-10 people, with a toilet and bathing facilities located on the first floor or even outside the building. For visiting dignitaries there is a separate upper-class hotel, off limits for common citizens. The comfort level of this hotel would be seen as barely tolerable for the average South Korean, but it is luxurious by North Korean standards, another reminder that the luxury enjoyed by the North Korean elite (except for the very top) is quite limited.
Hoeryong’s education system includes a number of schools, as well as a teaching college where they trained kindergarten and primary school teachers. In addition, there are also some junior colleges, which train technicians and junior clerks for agriculture and local industry.
Once upon a time, Hoeryong also had a dozen medium to large factories. The town produced paper, sewing machines, footwear and the like – but had no significant military production capabilities. However, in the 1990s, most of these factories closed. Only one industrial enterprise has survived relatively unscathed: a large tobacco factory that produces cigarettes for the military. It is officially a part of North Korea’s military economy, and hence even at a time of great economic crisis, fared relatively well.
The tobacco factory is located on the outskirt of town. It is surrounded by the houses of its employees. Remarkably, in the early 2000s, many of these houses became small workshops in which counterfeited Chinese cigarettes were produced. The tobacco leaves, paper and packaging were either stolen from the factory or bought at the market, and most people in this neighborhood knew how to make cigarettes from their work experience.
Most of the people in Hoeryong live in traditional Korean houses, i.e. a one-story building with a tiled roof and ondol heated floors (fuelled by coal briquette). However, in the 1980s, a number of apartments were built in the downtown area. These apartments line the city’s two main streets, thus protecting the town’s less luxuriant looking housing stock from the prying eyes of outsiders.
Such was the fate of Hoeryong in the era of Kim Jong Il, which was to come to an abrupt end in 2011. A new era has arrived, but it is too early to say what it will mean for this town in the Northeastern corner of North Korea.
Main picture: R. Cunningham
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