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Glimpses of a Hermit Nation

A decade after a massive famine, North Koreans are still struggling. In Chongjin, deprivation spurs change.

July 03, 2005|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

Although Chongjin is only 275 miles from the capital as the crow flies, the journey takes three days by car, or about 27 hours by train. Most visitors arrive from the south on a treacherous dirt road that twists around the mountains girding the city of 600,000.

On the outskirts of Chongjin, the road widens into a boulevard lined with trees, a video taken by a visitor in 2001 shows. But newcomers soon sense something strange: In a city nearly as populous as Boston, there are almost no personal cars, only military and government vehicles. The roadway is so empty that schoolchildren stroll blithely down the middle.

Power lines are strung overhead for trams, which run infrequently and are so crowded that people hang off the back. Even bicycles are a luxury, so most people walk, often with improbably large bundles on their backs.

Since there are no taxis, some people make hand carts and hire themselves out as porters. They wait at the roadside for customers. Many are homeless, so at night they sleep on their carts.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 19, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
North Korean leader -- An article about North Korea in the July 3 Section A incorrectly described a sign heralding leader Kim Jong Il. The sign called him the "Sun of the 21st Century," not the "Son of the 21st Century."

There are other oddities. The upper floors of an 18-story apartment building along the main boulevard are unoccupied because there are no elevators. There is a zoo, but it has no animals. There's hardly any garbage because there is too little to go to waste.

Women have set up makeshift eateries on vacant lots, ladling out soup cooked over charcoal stoves, using hand-cranked blowers on the fires. Customers eat squatting at tables fashioned from wood planks propped on buckets.

Nowadays, Chongjin is not the worst-off place in North Korea, because its proximity to the Chinese border, 50 miles away, offers access to consumer products. Its markets are believed to be the largest in the country outside of Pyongyang. But as an industrial city in an area with little arable land, it was particularly vulnerable to famine.

Disaster struck in the early 1990s. Chongjin's outmoded and inefficient factories had limped along on spare parts and cheap oil from the Soviet Union. When the communist bloc collapsed, suddenly there was no fuel for the power plants. Factories stopped.

Farms couldn't produce because they depended on chemical fertilizers and electric irrigation systems. Heavy rains and floods in the summer of 1995 exacerbated a famine already underway.

Chongjin used to be a busy port, with Japanese and Soviet ships loading products from the factories. Now it is filled with flimsy squid-fishing boats; most of the larger vessels in port are bringing in humanitarian aid. The foreign sailors are not permitted to disembark.

Aside from a small, ragged seafood market at the east end of the harbor, the waterfront is desolate. The government has installed high fences to keep residents from leaving or fishing, which is illegal for individuals.

Perched above the port, in the style of the Hollywood sign, giant letters crumbling into the hillside proclaim, "Long Live Kim Il Sung," referring to North Korea's founder, who died in 1994. Other signs throughout the city herald his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, as the "Son of the 21st Century."

The city, though, looks like it never emerged from the 1960s. Most buildings are whitewashed cinderblock apartments or row houses built after the area was heavily bombed by the United States during the Korean War, and they give Chongjin a monochrome bleakness. Even the red paint of the propaganda billboards -- "We are happy," and "We have nothing to envy," read two of the slogans -- has faded in the sun.

"I had the impression of a ghost town. It was really colorless, gray. There was no life," said Violaine de Marsangy, a French aid worker who spent six weeks in Chongjin in 1999.

The big power plant on the waterfront operates at about 25% of capacity, so when dusk falls, swaths of the city vanish into darkness. Kathi Zellweger of the Catholic charity Caritas recalls being driven into Chongjin: "It's pitch dark at night, so dark you can't even tell there is a city."

West of the port is an industrial area, home to Chongjin Steel Co., Chemical Textile Co., May 10 Coal Mine Machinery Factory and Kimchaek Iron & Steel. These were once the pride of North Korea's industrial sector. No longer.

"Chongjin was like a forest of scrap metal, with huge plants that seem to go on for miles and miles that have been turned into rust buckets," said Tun Myat, who in 1997 became one of the first senior U.N. officials permitted to visit the city. "I've been all over the world, and I've never seen anything quite like this."

In a working-class neighborhood in southern Chongjin, the 39-year-old coal miner lives in a squat, drab house. The homes in Ranam are organized in blocks, usually with five units on either side of an alley and an outhouse at one end shared by the 10 families.

His only piece of furniture is a wooden table with folding legs. He has one cooking pot. One knife. A couple of bowls. A cutting board that he made himself. A large urn to store water he brings from the well.

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