I was taken aback when our guides told us to leave our cameras behind on the bus. Our group had up to this point enjoyed a very liberal photo policy under our North Korean minders. Granted, we had spent most of our time up to this point in the relative (and I strongly emphasize the word relative here) comfort and modernity of Pyongyang. I suppose there was not much to hide on our itinerary that has already been documented in the capital city.
Hamhung is different. The scene here is grim. Soviet-era buildings have fallen into disrepair, dark with the shortage of electricity that has become normal in these parts of the country. The industrial facilities that helped the country’s post-war development during the 1960s and 70s were now quiet. I remember my first welcome in this city: brown sludge that flowed from the faucet in my hotel room.
And then there were the people. I understood why our guides wanted to refrain us from taking photographs. They were not trying to hide the physical truths of the city, but of its inhabitants. I remember the faces that greeted us when we disembarked our bus in front of the Grand Theatre. Men walked by with sunken faces – they carried a weariness that suggested more than lives afflicted with economic hardship and malnutrition.
It is said that Hamhung, once the center of chemical manufacturing in the country, was now a center of methamphetamine manufacturing. When the great famine struck the country in the mid 1990s, the country’s economy collapsed soon after. Many of the city’s skilled scientists and engineers needed to find a way to earn an income for their hungry families. They pursued cooking methamphetamine because it was both a profitable business due to demand overseas, and also, it suppressed hunger. It is said that many of the locals have succumbed to substance abuse. Were these people suffering from such disease?
And there were the children. They were dressed in tattered clothing that had seen more years than the children themselves. Their unwashed bodies were covered with a filth no caring mother would have tolerated. They were more of them in Hamhung than the number of Kim Il Sung portraits I had see on my trip.
These were the kotjebi – North Korean street orphans. They had been abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves. They are named after the flower swallows that appear when the flowers are in bloom, traveling field to field in search of food and shelter.
But, they looked more like the pigeons that circle around crumbs thrown away on city streets.