Inside Chongjin: A Photo Essay

September 12th, 2011

Chongjin was made famous last year as a result of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, a book that focuses on the lives of several individuals who lived in the city during the great famine of the early 1990s.  In Nothing to Envy, Demick paints the picture of a city suffering chronic decay, in which dead bodies filled the streets, children had to fend for themselves, and looters ransacked factories for spare parts.  Quite how bad it was, one will never know for sure – but it is clear from pictures recently acquired by NK News, that conditions in Chongjin appear to have fortunately improved since then.

Chongjin has been open to tourism for a while now and the following pictures, sent in by a reader, give a unique insight into conditions in the city in 2011.  Very few tourists get the opportunity to visit the city, so there are few pictures available online.  This is because it is relatively expensive (and difficult) to visit Chongjin.  Travel by road from Pyongyang is reported to take three days by road, or 27 hours by train.  Consequently, tourists must charter an aircraft from Pyongyang and fly to nearby Orang airport, a dual-use military airport located approximately an hours drive away.  Allegedly this flight is by no means cheap either, meaning just a handful of Westerners visit the city each year.

Chongjin is North Korea’s third largest city, located in North Hamgyong province – relatively close to the Chinese border.   It features a prominent port, and some of the largest steel, chemical, coal and iron factories in North Korea.  But despite this, tourists to the city have few places to visit in comparison with other parts of North Korea.  This may in some part be down to the relatively underdeveloped (and often decaying) state of infrastructure found in the city, which the local tourist agency (Chilbosan Travel) might understandably be keen to hide from visitors. Most itineraries to Chongjin thus consist of a visit to :

– Chongjin Revolutionary Museum

– Central Square and Kim Il Sung Statue

– Chongjin Steelworks Kindergarten

Fortunately for our reader, his visit took in a number of other places, including a local beach, the downtown harbour area, and a foreign seaman’s facility.  All of his photos are available below, complete with annotations he kindly provided to give context.

To view the annotations, please ensure you view the pictures in Flickr itself – they unfortunately do not appear in this mini-slideshow:


Some observations

– While the factories certainly don’t look like they are producing at peak levels, there is certainly activity in them again today – and the main power station appears to be functioning.

– It is hard to assess the food situation from these pictures, but children do not appear as malnourished as has been reported. Chongjin clearly benefits from being close to China, with the inflow of nutritious and low cost foods a distinct possibility compared to in other parts of the country.

– It is interesting in these pictures to observe the sheer number of bicycles visible.  Cycles are clearly the transport of choice for both men and women in Chongjin – something unthinkable in Pyongyang, where women remain banned from cycling and overall cycle uptake is low among men.

– The rail infrastructure is clearly still well used in Chongjin, with our reader saying he saw three freight trains passing by the hotel during the night.  Strangely, one was reported to be transporting water in large, uncovered cargo units.

– Aside from the main hotel, located nearby to the cities’ principal train station, our reader reported that there is also a hotel for Chinese nationals working in the city, opposite the port.

– The restaurant at the Seaman’s club was apparently very busy, with locals enjoying food late into the night.  Our reader explained that the menu there was several pages long, offering cheap dog, pork, chicken, beef, and seafood dishes.  This suggests food supplies must be relatively consistant, and that the economic situation has improved to the point there is a market for a wide variety of meat based dishes.

– At the beach near Chongjin there were a number of vendors selling BBQ’d seafood – mussels, clams, squid and even sea-urchins.

To learn more about Chongjin, NK News recommends Barbara Demick’s article “Glimpses of a Hermit Nation“, published in the LA Times in 2005.
Video – Driving Through Chongjin Part 1

Video – Driving Through Chongjin Part 2

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.