Chongjin - A view from our expert author

Originally a fishing village, Chongjin underwent massive growth during the 20th century as the Japanese made it into a major port and industrial city, producing steel, machinery and chemical fibres, building its grid of roads to serve those ends and its population of what was, by 1945, some 300,000 people. Around two-thirds of that number survived the US shells and bombs of the Korean War, to blossom into the DPRK’s second-largest industrial city, to which it still has something of a pungent claim. There is an array of factories, mills, towering chimneys and spindly black cranes, while its 627,000 inhabitants live in a mix of spaciously laid-out concrete apartment blocks, or densely packed single-storey cottages under forests of tall wooden-box chimneys. The overall feel of most of these structures is they’re from a past era.

One of the DPRK’s major industrial centres for decades, it is now a powerful study in the DPRK’s decline.

The City of Iron, as Chongjin’s been nicknamed for its six million tonne-capacity Kim Chaek No 1 Iron and Steel Complex, is rusty, and for all its output it’s telling how much a city of such importance to the DPRK’s industrial economy has suffered energy-starved underactivity and investment in recent years. Like Pyongyang, the heavy smog is actually mist drawing in from the hills. Still, there is a fair amount construction and renovation work going on, ranging from several large new buildings rising up around the main square to tower-block residents precariously repainting the walls outside their windows in colours as bright as the little kiosks that dot the roads. The large open areas between the tower blocks are not spaces to play but areas to grow crops, like every other spare square inch in the country, reminding one of the reality of the situation that jars in juxtaposition to the murals of the beaming Great and Dear Leaders that flank the roads.

It’s named after a resistance fighter against the Japanese and major ally of Kim Il Sung, but who was executed in 1951 at the rank of general for failing to prevent the US landings at Incheon. His honour was later restored however, being posthumously awarded the National Reunification Prize in 1998, his home town of Songjin renamed after him, and likewise a technology university in Pyongyang. He’s one of the very few outside of the Kim family to have a site named after him.

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