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Hamhung and Hungnam - A view from our expert author


Majon Beach Resort in Hamhung, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comBeach-front cottages on Majon Beach Resort in Hamhung © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com

With the centuries’ old royal palace, enormous theatre, massive fertiliser factory and pristine beach resort, these cities illustrate the extreme contrasts found in the DPRK.

Hamhung is North Korea’s second city. The birthplace of the founder of Korea’s Ri dynasty and the site of a famous battle during the Korean War, Hamhung has since developed into a spacious industrial city of around 750,000 inhabitants. The city is located close to the northern end of Hamhung Bay and is served by the nearby port of Hungnam, one of the country’s largest export centres.

Hamhung is renowned as a heavy engineering centre and is home to 30% of the DPRK’s industrial capacity, producing machinery, trucks, metals, and fertiliser out of the enormous Hungnam ammonium fertiliser plant, the largest in the DPRK.

Relative to other cities in the region, Hamhung is bustling with activity. Though there are few cars, cyclists tear along the pavements and pedestrians stroll past the grandiose theatre building. The occasional street vendor does a brisk trade by the roadside and there is some construction work going on.

An employee at the Hungnam Fertiliser Complex, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comAn employee at the Hungnam Fertiliser Complex © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com

Hamhung also boasts a proud academic tradition. The city’s branch of the Academy of Sciences is particularly strong in the field of chemical research, having developed the Juche fabric known as Vinalon, which is produced at the February 8 Vinalon textile complex. However, this well-publicised expertise has given rise to suspicions among Western intelligence sources that the city is also a potential centre for chemical weapons production.

Going downriver from Hamhung about 9km gets one to the industrial port city of Hungnam. Nestled off the raised road just about halfway between the two cities is the royal palace where the Ri dynasty’s founder Ri Song Gye came to live following his abdication from the throne. Despite having founded the Ri, local lore doesn’t rate him highly, possibly for his proclivity for having lots of courtesans. The main buildings were finished in 1398, but were destroyed by Hideyoshi’s forces and rebuilt in 1610 – all slots, no nails – before the Korean War came and did some damage. Visitors seeking longevity may get to touch the crazy 450-year-old pine tree, and it’s a very romantic venue under moonlight or on a torchlit tour of the place.

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