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Pyongsong - A view from our expert author


A sign on a rural farm, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.comLocated about 30km northeast of Pyongyang (39°15'N 125°51'E), on one of the routes to Myohyangsan, is the vibrant town of Pyongsong. Until 2012, this bustling conurbation could only be seen by visitors to the DPRK if they’d been bounced from over-booked hotels in Pyongyang. That’s since changed and the town is one of the country’s newest openings for Western tourists. So new in fact that in 2013 one tourist bus got something of a mystery tour trying to find the hotel, as none of the guides nor driver aboard had been before or knew where it was.

(Photo: A colourful sign on a rural farm – many trips to the countryside include a visit to a farm © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com)

It’s a picturesque 40-minute scoot from Pyongyang to Pyongsong, with the road tracking a flat river-plain between steep hills that ebb, encroach and again ebb away. Visitors can see up close the various kinds of farms and rural housing – and as elsewhere, every square inch of soil is cultivated. Near to town one passes a quarry, a rail marshalling yard and increasing numbers of coal trucks, as coal mining figures big in the area’s economic activity. Formerly a village called Sainmyon, it was mining that in the aftermath of the Korean War rapidly led it to grow into a town, being renamed Pyongsong in 1964 and becoming the capital of South Pyongan County in 1969.

Less than an hour’s drive from Pyongyang, this buzzing town, built on trade and nuclear science, is a recent tour stop.

The country’s only coal-mining university is here, one of a fleet of higher education institutes that also swelled the town’s population, and following in the wake of Kim Il Sung University’s decampment to Sainmyon during the Korean War. The DPRK State Academy of Sciences is here too, and according to the Federation of American Scientists, so is Pyongsong’s Atomic Energy Research Center, part of Pyongsong College of Science’s nuclear physics department which has some 6,000 associated staff.

These days, nearly a quarter of a million people dwell in what’s a significant trading town, with wholesale and farmers’ markets that developed out of alley markets all doing determinedly well, despite big bods sometimes fearing that self-interest augers the end of the common good. DPRK observer Andrei Lankov has said Pyongsong has a ‘rather sophisticated infrastructure’ around its wholesale markets, with many privately owned trucks and storage facilities used by thousands of traders, dealing in all things from lady’s dainties to televisions, foodstuffs and money.

There’s a lot of construction going on among the city’s tall and not unhandsome apartment blocks, including a schoolchildren’s palace overlooking Pyongsong Park, and there are more buses and lorries rolling around than one sees elsewhere. In warm weather the town bustles with people on bicycles, oldies and young milling and chilling, skating, and congregating at the numerous street kiosks or in alley markets. Some play in the stepped river that runs right through the town, others wash their clothes in it. Still, the rusty floodlight towers of the football stadium lack any lights.

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