Hamhung, North Korea's largest industrial center, was opened to foreigners just two years ago. There's no hiding the poverty in the region.
Hamhung, North Korea
Our omnipresent guide advises, "This city is not used to foreigners, so please: no pictures."
That peremptory order introduces us to North Korea's biggest industrial center, a dreary city of 800,000 near the eastern coast about 100 miles northeast of Pyongyang. It's not certain, however, if the sensitivity reflects chagrin over the decrepit apartment blocks and the graying industrial zone or concerns about how the locals, who have rarely seen foreigners, will respond.
"This city was opened just two years ago," the guide says, and it's believed to harbor many tales of poverty and starvation from the darkest days of the 1990s famine when 2 million people died throughout the country.
The hardships endured by many here, according to foreign aid workers who visit occasionally, contrasted with the privileges of officials and their cronies and relatives, with close enough ties to authorities in Pyongyang to get enough food and medicine.
The coastal road leading to the city gives a sense of the difficulties. It's a bumpy ride down a two-lane highway in serious need of repair; few vehicles are in sight. The scene is deceptively bucolic – a picture of how the countryside might have appeared a century ago.
The only blemish on the tranquil image is the black smoke spewing from trucks powered not by gas but by wood in stoves mounted in the open rear cargo sections. Guides ban photo-graphs of these old wood-burners – a colorful tribute to ingenuity in a time of need but an embarrassment to a country that looks more like a backward third-world enclave than a regional power player.
There is, however, no hiding the poverty of a region where oxen pull carts and plows and most people ride or push bicycles.
We see corn and vegetables growing up to the walls of small cement homes. Families have come to depend on private plots to supplement harvests from cooperative farms that don't leave enough for the farmers, who are supposed to get a small percentage of what they grow. It's out of the question, though, to talk to anyone about life on the farm.
Instead, we're taken to a "showcase cooperative" – a collective farm that's deemed fit for foreign visitors to see. A monument memorializes a visit by "eternal president" Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994, and children sing for us in a schoolyard.