Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Holy Sites of Juche

Statue of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il riding horses. Erected in 2012 after the death of Kim Jong Il.


For the uninitiated, Juche is the official state ideology of North Korea. It is most commonly translated as "self-reliance". This self-reliance is supposed to mean the self-sufficiency of the state and that "man is the master of the revolution". In reality, neither of these is true. The general concept of Juche has a history that goes back to the 1930s, however, it wasn't until 1982 that Kim Il Sung wrote the main treatise on the subject. Mixing Korean ethnic nationalism with Marxism-Leninism, Juche also helps to support the Kim family personality cult, which is further backed up by the Monolithic Ideology System, which declares that there is no correct thought but the thought of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and (now) Kim Jong Un. Through it all, the web of Juche underpins the fabric of North Korea's political and cultural systems.

The cult of personality that exists within North Korea is the most extreme and pervasive example that has ever existed. With a genesis that dates to the very foundation of the country, North Korea is strewn with thousands of monuments praising and commemorating the leadership. Its people are taught songs of praise to the Kim family, and important sites have become pilgrimage destinations for millions (as well as mandatory tourist sites).
Christianity has Rome. Judaism has Jerusalem. Islam has Mecca and Medina. The Cult of Kim has Mangyongdae, Pyongyang, Hoeryong, Mt. Paektu, and Myohyangsan.

There are countless historic and revolutionary sites within North Korea, but those core locations provide the major, real-world backbone needed for the cult, and also helps to support its racialist overtones as the people of Korea are viewed within the cult as the "purest" race in the world, with the purest bloodline leading the revolution. In this article, I want to take a look at the major sites that anchor this Juche republic.

Locations of sites mentioned in the article. Image source: Google Earth/AccessDPRK)


Mt. Paektu

Kim Jong Un's 2012 visit to the summit of Mt. Paektu. Frozen Lake Chol is in the background. (Image source: KCNA)

Located in the far north of the country, split in two by the borders of China and North Korea, the ancient volcano Mt. Paektu (9,003 ft) holds a special spiritual place in the hearts of all Koreans, north and south. The mountain really is a wonderful place and it is the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula. Lower elevations are covered with dense forests and countless wild animals roam. Higher up, the rich land turns to ice and rock, finally giving way to the enormous crater lake (Lake Chol/Heaven Lake) at the summit, which was formed by an extremely powerful eruption around 946 AD.

From this majestic setting, the foundation myth of the Korean people arises. The god-king Dangun is said to have been born on the mountain to his mother, the daughter of a bear and a human, and to his father, the son of the Lord of Heaven. Dangun eventually went on to found what has become known as Korea (Old Joseon) in 2333 BC. This date is celebrated in both Koreas as National Foundation Day, and for over 4,000 years, the people of Korea forged a unique and ever unified identity that was only later shattered by the events of World War II and the Korean War.

The mountain's military role also lends itself to the mytho-historical accounts of Kim Il Sung and his band of guerrilla fighters. Mt. Paektu and its geologic offspring, the lower mountains that run down the spine of the country, served as an important historical defensive line. It enabled the construction of many forts and walled cities that helped to defend Korea from invading Chinese, roving bandits, and other outside threats. Kim Il Sung's story here begins with his struggle against Japanese occupation. From the flanks of the mountain he, with his iron-will and band of peerless, peasant worriers, would strike Japanese strongholds, disrupt communication and transportation, liberate towns, and raise an army that eventually defeated the whole of Imperil Japan. The mountain gave them shelter and supplies. It taught them lessons through struggle that made them stronger and wiser. And as the Japanese threat vanished from the Earth, yet while Western imperialism threatened to devour all, it gave him a son: Kim Jong Il.

The alleged birthplace of Kim Jong Il at the Mt. Paektu "Secret Camp". (Image source: NK News)

The reality is that Kim Il Sung and his fighters never held more than a moderate-sized village for more than a few hours. Their military threats and ideological assaults on imperialism were never more than an annoyance to the Japanese. But after decades of spin and embellishment, Kim Il Sung, with the divine mandate of Mt. Paektu, all but single-handedly defeated the Japanese, overthrew the old capitalist order by awakening the call to class struggle in the hearts of the people, and eventually created the most powerful nation in the world after defeating the former most powerful, the United States.
Likewise, Kim Jong Il (who was actually born in Russia, not on Mt. Paektu), used the mystical nature of the mountain to legitimize his rule. Not only was he the son of Korea, he was the son of Heaven. He was part of a spiritual lineage that dates all the way back to Dangun and the founding of Korea. No true Korean could question him.

It is that lineage that, using the broad scope of Juche, enables the regime to suppress minorities, exile the physical and mentally handicapped, and look upon all other races as inferior beings. To them, only Koreans are pure of blood and heart, and that must be defended at all costs by the Paektu Bloodline, the noblest bloodline that ever was.

Soldiers making their pilgrimage to the mountain. (Image source: Commons/Liaka ac/CC 2.0)

As such an important place, numerous songs and poems have been written about the mountain, and it features in national symbolism, like the National Emblem. The pine tree is even the national tree of the DPRK because of its association with Mt. Paektu and Kim Il Sung's activities there during the Japanese occupation.
The nearby city of Samjiyon has been turned into the main stop before visiting the mountain itself. It has multiple monuments, walled of villas, and a secure palace for the ruling Kim. Since 2005, the city has undergone a series of upgrades and it is the intention of Kim Jong Un to turn it into major regional hub by 2020. After all, Samjiyon is the "spiritual hometown of the people" according to government propaganda.

The Samjiyon Grand Monument (Image source: Commons/Liaka ac/CC 2.0)



Myohyangsan

Myohyangsan as seen from Pohyonsa Temple. (Image source: Commons/Uri Tours/CC 2.0)

Myohyangsan (which translates to "mysterious fragrant mountain") is a mountain along the border between North Pyongan and Chagang provinces. The mountain was the home of the mythical King Dangun after he descended from Mt. Paektu and began to establish Korea. Myohyangsan is another beautiful mountain and has been recognized by UNESCO as a world biosphere reserve for its many endemic and endangered plant and animal species. The mountain is also dotted with century's old temples, graves, and other historic ruins, which tie its current modern use to the past.

Nestled in the valley are a set of two large underground museums called the International Friendship Exhibition. These museums hold over 200,000 gifts to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from people around world. Satellite imagery from 2017 suggests that the museums are undergoing expansion, perhaps to include new gifts being received by Kim Jong Un. Unfortunately, photography inside the exhibition is prohibited, so I can't show you what it looks like indoors.

One of the museum entrances. (Image source: Commons/Uwe Brodrecht/CC 2.0)

The associated city of Hyangsan (Kuwollim), largely built in traditional Korean architecture, serves as the urban center that helps support the several luxury hotels pilgrims stay at. The existence of these museums (rather, the fact so many gifts have been bestowed on the leadership) is used by the government to prove the supremacy of the Kim family. Countless honorary degrees from questionable universities of the Communist era, an array of now meaningless awards and medals from defunct Eastern bloc countries and former African despots, and all manner of other things from the simple to the magnificent are all to be found here. Citizens (and tourists) are walked through dozens and dozens of rooms being told who, when, and where each item came to Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. The site is used to show how the gifts demonstrate that the ideology created by the Kims is correct and is allegedly seen as important worldwide. The exhibition also helps to instill a sense of community, that North Korea really isn't all alone; rather, it is just the evil capitalists who are trying to destroy the country and to harm "true" freedom loving people around the world. But thanks to the Kims and their tireless work, all people can rest assured in the ultimate victory that is to come - and these items prove it.

The Hyangsan Hotel. (Image Source: Flickr/Frühtau)

The recent activity at the museum is also part of an overall improvement of the area. The construction of a new airport and renovated facilities have all occurred under Kim Jong Un. He has spent millions around the country improving the major sites associated with his family and the government.

Located nearby is the curious Hagap Facility. Once thought to be an underground nuclear complex, it is now thought by many to be a massive underground repository for the works of the Kims and other important national archives. It, too, has ongoing new construction activities.


Pyongyang and Mangyongdae

The site rich capital of Pyongyang. Click for larger view. (Image source: GoogleEarth/AccessDPRK)

Pyongyang is the central focus of the cult of Kim and from where Juche emanates. It is the birthplace of Kim Il Sung (in the Mangyongdae neighborhood) and it is the center of government. While residency in the capital is tightly restricted, all North Koreans are expected to make the journey to visit the main sights. These include, the Juche Tower, the premier Tower of Immortality, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, his eternal resting place (along with that of his son, Kim Jong Il) at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the monument to the foundation of the Korean Workers' Party, the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, and all must bow before the enormous bronze statues at Mansu Hill.

Juche Tower at night. (Image source: Commons/Martyn Williams/CC 2.5)

As briefly discussed earlier, Juche is the guiding light of North Korea. Kim Il Sung's explanation of Juche was, "Establishing juche means, in a nutshell, being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s own country. This means holding fast to an independent position, rejecting dependence on others, using one’s own brains, believing in one’s own strength, displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance, and thus solving one’s own problems for oneself on one’s own responsibility under all circumstances." Unfortunately, this notionally positive concept was never meant to empower individualism.

To honor the invention of the Juche idea and to honor Kim Il Sung's 70th birthday, the Juche Tower was opened in 1982. Standing at 560 feet, the tower contains 25,550 blocks - one for each day of Kim Il Sung's life to that point. The tower is one of the most iconic and popular sights in Pyongyang and, from the top, is the best place to take panoramic photos of the city. The tower serves as a iconographic focal point for the city (as it can be seen across the Taedong River from Kim Il Sing Square) and is the backdrop for parades and mass celebrations.

To underscore the importance and claimed universality of the Juche idea, the tower also contains 82 "friendship plaques" from supportive organizations across the world.


Kim Il Sung's birthplace. (Image source: Commons/stephan/CC 2.0)

The birthplace of Kim Il Sung at Mangyongdae carries with it the same importance and sense of awe as Bethlehem does for Christians. Mangyongdae was once a very rural community on the outskirts of Pyongyang, but now that it contains the claimed original birthplace of a demigod, it is a major tourist attraction and has become infused with both a religious and recreational nature.

This Revolutionary Site has been a place of pilgrimage since 1947. Kim Il Sung's childhood 1,000 ri (~300 mile) "Journey of Learning" and his other youthful exploits took off from this spot. The site contains not just the house, which is surrounded by green and wooded spaces, but it has been expanded with modern facilities such as the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Museum, a large amusement park, a water park, and is adjacent to the Mangyongdae School where North Korea's next generation of elites are taught. The amusement park can technically accommodate 100,000 people a day, which attests to the area's importance.

The house is treated with reverence and as a place of reflection, while the outer areas of parks provide the people with joy and an ability to somewhat let go of their otherwise ridged daily lives. Through the outlook of a North Korean, all of this is provided to them thanks to the love and caring of their eternal father and a gracious state.


Kumsusan Memorial Palace (2010). (Image source: Commons/David Stanley/CC 2.0)

As is even the case demigods, death tends to follow life. Kumsusan began as a palatial residence and office for Kim Il Sung and was constructed in 1976. Following his death in 1994, it was converted into a mausoleum. Kim Il Sung, still officially the Eternal President, lies in a glass sarcophagus at the heart of the palace. When his holy son, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011, he, too, was placed within the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. The original construction of the 115,000 square feet palace and the subsequent renovations needed to turn it into an everlasting mausoleum have been reported to have cost a combined $900 million.

Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il within the palace. (Image source: KCNA)

Visitors are required to pay their respects to the lifelike statues of the gone but not forgotten leaders. The current statues replaced pure white marble ones in 2016.


The reopening of Ryomyong Street with the renovated tower in the center. (Image source: KCTV)

To underscore the fact that Kim Il Sung never truly left the people, thousands of "towers of immortality" were constructed across the country. These local towers are gathering places for holidays, mass celebrations, weddings, etc. People are required to bow as they walk passed them and maintenance of them is of the highest priority. In fact, the towers, as well as major murals and other key monuments, are often the only places that have 24/7 electricity provided and nighttime lighting. Your home may be cold and dark, but you can warm yourself by the glow of the tower.

The preeminent 92-meter (301 feet) tall tower in Pyongyang was renovated in 2017.


Monument to the Foundation of the Workers' Party of Korea. (Image source: Commons/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/CC 3.0)

No trip to Pyongyang is complete without a visit to the Workers' Party of Korea Foundation Monument. The WPK was founded in 1949 and serves as the only real political voice in the country. While it is in reality little more than a rubber-stamp body for approving "laws" dictated from on high, the legal system, political activities, education, correct culture and thought, and nearly every other aspect of one's daily life is ultimately controlled by the Party. To be a Party member is to have an easy life and a future for your children. To be denied membership, or worse, ejected, is cast a multi-generational shadow on your family from which they may never recover. Obedience to the KWP is the primary function of every North Korean.

The monument was erected to mark the 50th anniversary of the Party's founding. The granite and bronze monument is in the shape of the WPK's emblem; a hammer (workers), sickle (farmers), and calligraphy brush (intellectuals). It lies on the right bank of the Taedong River, across from the Korean Revolution Museum on the left bank. These, in turn, lie upstream from Kim Il Sung Square and the Juche Tower. These form two axis that ties the city together based on the Kim family and the Party.

A view of the graves and busts at the Revolutionary Martys' Cemetery. (Image source: Commons/Nicor/ CC 3.0)

The Revolutionary Martys' Cemetery is the primary cemetery for the leading revolutionaries in the fight against the Japanese. Located near the top of Mount Taeson (which also holds the ruins of an ancient fortress), the cemetery contains the graves of 159 elite figures. It was first established in 1975, but later expanded in 1985. Among the internees are the mothers of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Kim Il Sung created his power base around those guerrilla fighters. They helped lend him legitimacy in terms of his military prowess and helped him consolidate power during the early years of the government when multiple factions still existed. Those that are buried here served as steady rocks from which Juche and the Monolithic Ideology System could be established and flourish.


Mansu Hill Grand Monument. (Image source: Commons/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/CC 3.0)

The Mansu Hill (Mansudae) Grand Monument is perhaps the most well-known monument in North Korea as it is required to pay homage there for anyone coming to the capital. The towering 66-foot bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il greet pilgrims with a smile. Everyone who visits is required to bow before the statues and present a small bouquet of flowers. Despite their friendly appearance, the bronzed Kims look on with absolute confidence and power; their scale dwarfing even large groups of people, forcing them to submit. In front of the statues, flanking either side of the square, are two massive Red Flag monuments that remind the visitor that they are in the Juche republic, and that having the correct ideology is the most important thing.

Behind the statues is a massive mural of Mt. Paektu that is painted on the wall of the Korean Revolution Museum - another important location to see for any able citizen. The museum was already one of the largest buildings in the world when it was first constructed, but it underwent further expansion and remodeling between 2016 and 2017. The museum underscores the North Korean version of events of the Japanese occupation (which lasted from 1910 to 1945), as well as tells an atypical history of Korea from 1860 through to today. As with all museums in the country, it recounts history through the lens of the lives and philosophy of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and other major figures.

The fact that North Korea contains the spiritual heart of Korea (Mt. Paektu), Korea's political creation (Myohyangsan), and one of the ancient capitals of Korea (Pyongyang), allows the regime to play up their claim as having the ultimate, nearly divine right to rule over all 75 million Koreans living both north and south. This mindset buttresses the North's longstanding drive to reunify the peninsula under the single rule of the Kim family.

Hoeryong

Kim Jong Suk in her youth. (Image source: Commons)

Located in the distant northern reaches of the country, Hoeryong is the birthplace of Kim Jong Suk (born Dec. 24, 1917), Kim Jong Il's mother and the grandmother of Kim Jong Un. She died in 1949 as a former guerrilla fighter. Since then, her legacy has become one of being an acclaimed and immortal revolutionary and model mother. She was granted entrance into the noble pantheon of the Three Generals: Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and herself. As the "Mother of Korea" her life and places associated with her life feature within the Kim family cult and makes her the most prominent woman in North Korea's version of history.


Kim Jong Un has spent part of his rule solidifying his own place within the cult, and that means boosting the cults around those he is directly related to to give himself greater legitimacy, as he is still young and is not the firstborn - both of which are important matters within Confucianism. Hoeryong has had monuments and museums for decades, but now the city is largely being rebuilt and the revolutionary sites and history associated with his grandmother are being burnished.


The park area dedicated to the life and times of Kim Jong Suk covers approximately 35 hectares (86 acres).


Bronze statue of Kim Jong Suk. (Image source: Wikimapia/mar12)

Here is Kim Jong Suk's birthplace. A modest, traditional-style peasant's home.

(Image source: Commons/Ray Cunningham/CC 3.0)

The Museum of the Revolutionary Activities of Kim Jong Suk.

(Image source: Tom Peddle)

Kim Jong Suk has additional monuments and murals around the country as well. She is included in the International Friendship Exhibition and her grave is at the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery in Pyongyang.

(Image source: Commons/Nicor/CC 3.0)

For additional reading:
The Price of the Cult of Kim, AccessDPRK, July 2017

--Jacob Bogle, 12/27/2018
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Friday, December 21, 2018

North Korea to the United States - You First




Any North Korea watcher worth their salt knows that North Korea and Western countries has a problem with definitions. What denuclearization means to one is quite different from what it means to the other. Despite having decades of experience with North Korea, successive US administrations appear to know that this difference exists but have refused to adjust their actions accordingly. Well, North Korea just made it impossible to ignore the reality of the situation.

On December 20, 2018, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released a statement saying, “The United States must now recognize the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and especially, must study geography, when we talk about the Korean Peninsula, it includes the territory of our republic and also the entire region of (South Korea) where the United States has placed its invasive force, including nuclear weapons. When we talk about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, it means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat, not only from the South and North but also from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula…”

This provides an all too clear meaning to the otherwise vague terms agreed to during the June Trump-Kim summit, and to the many other general agreements signed over the years. 
When America talks about denuclearization, it means no nuclear or long-range ballistic technology for the North. It means no peaceful nuclear power capacity that could be converted to weapons use. It means North Korea pledging to never engage in preemptive attacks. From the perspective of the North (as reinforced by this latest announcement), denuclearization means the removal of the United States’ nuclear umbrella over not only South Korea, but Japan as well. It means an agreement by the United States to never launch a preemptive attack (nuclear or otherwise) against the DPRK. It means the United States drawing down its forces in South Korea and the removal of nuclear-capable bombers from the country (there are no nuclear weapons stationed in South Korea). And it means that the path toward denuclearization must be taken across the whole peninsula, jointly, and accompanied by sanctions relief as Pyongyang is loathe to take any action without some kind of reciprocal action by either (or both) South Korea and the US.

North Korea has shown that it prefers joint action over the years, but that it will quickly revert to bellicose language and even take military actions if they don’t feel like the other side is keeping its end of the deal. Continuing inter-Korean cooperation is evidence of this. At the same time, their language has shifted regarding the United States as the US has, in the northern mind, only given token concessions while North Korea has refrained from any nuclear or ballistic testing since November 2017.


2017 Pukguksong-2 ICBM test launch. (KCNA)

I feel it’s important to quickly discuss why nuclear weapons are so important to the DPRK and why the regime seems quite content to let their people starve while they spend billions of dollars trying to acquire these weapons. Korea as a whole has always been a “shrimp squeezed between two whales”. It has long had to stave off being the play thing of Japan and China, and since WWII, it has had to contend with Soviet/Russian and American influences. Kim Il Sung began North Korea’s nuclear ambitions practically from day one of liberation from Japan. It was spurred on after the devastation of the Korean War and has slowly become incorporated into the national psyche.

Nuclear weapons are seen as the final guarantor of the regime’s survival, as countries that gave up their nuclear ambitions have a history of falling to the United States (namely Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam’s Iraq). Generations of North Koreans have grown up with government propaganda praising the importance of nuclear weapons, spurring them to take on greater hardships to enable their development. And the leadership has spent generations promising to deliver them and promising that achieving such a goal will also guarantee national economic strength and put and end to hardship. For the regime to relent and simply turn over everything after they have finally constructed dozens of functional warheads as well developed needed missile delivery systems would be seen as a betrayal of the people.

Kim Jong Un must been seen to get security assurances and to get the United States to step back before taking any concrete steps toward true disarmament. Otherwise, he risks losing everything and a stable rule is the only thing that matters to the country’s elite. That’s why it should come as no surprise to anyone who has observed the country for more than five minutes, that North Korea will continue the operation of hidden missile bases, continue the operation of nuclear facilities, and continue to develop and expand their conventional military forces until such time as real, highly detailed and specific agreements are signed.

Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump at the June 2017 Singapore Summit. (Evan Vuccia/AP)

Getting full, verified, and permanent denuclearization up front is basically like trying to eat an elephant in one bite. As the moral implies, though, you can only accomplish a major goal if you take lots of small bites. The United States has been preoccupied with getting North Korea to comply entirely and immediately while ignoring the reality of the matter. Nuclear weapons to North Korea aren’t like some random weapons system the US may discard because it’s too costly or the technology fails. Nuclear weapons are intimately tied to the country’s identity and their belief that it ensures their survival. The decades-long game we have been playing has resulted in failure. They will never give up their weapons overnight and it’s time we came to understand this.

Achieving the goal of denuclearization is one that may take years of consistent work and countless small steps. Trust building measures are a must. Understanding that North Korea will likely deflect, obfuscate, and outright lie in the process must also be expected. However, it’s these small steps that will lead to ultimate success. We can’t underestimate the value of trust building measures or small steps. To quote the Bible, “despise not small beginnings” (Zechariah 4:10). Recent examples of these small beginnings, taken by both Koreas, is evidence that they can deescalate, defer further testing and cross-border attacks, and accomplish the dismantling of a portion of the DMZ. In other words, from North Korea’s view, it’s up to the United States to make bold concessions for every bold concession they demand from North Korea, otherwise, we're all just wasting our time.

As I said, reaching the full goal may take years. In fact, it may take an entire generation. New ways of thinking and having the willingness to act outside of the tried and failed current box of tricks will take time to permeate leadership and bureaucracies. The question is will we create an environment that gives us the time needed, or will we continue shouting at each other until someone makes a very big, very bad mistake?



--Jacob Bogle, 12/21/2018
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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

DPRK-China Border Crossings

Looking into North Korea from Dandong, China. Image: Commons/Prince Roy/2.0 CC

The number of border crossings a country has and changes to them allow analysts to better understand things like relations between countries and anticipated future trade and travel. For North Korea, observing what happens along their border with China (and even their tiny border with Russia) provides an out-sized insight into the workings and intentions of the regime.

The #AccessDPRK project identified 27 current and former border crossings (some could easily be reconnected). Several DPRK-China crossings have been expanded lately and those will be the focus of this post. An exploreable Google Map is located at the bottom of the article showing all the of the border crossings.

As always, click on an image to see a larger view.

Sinuiju Border Crossing


North Korea's key border crossing is the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge that connects the North Korean city of Sinuiju and the Chinese city of Dandong which lies across the Yalu River. It was constructed by the Japanese (under a different name) during World War II and carries roughly 45% of all trade between the two countries.


In 2011 construction started on the New Yalu River Bridge, 8.3 km downriver from the old bridge. The bridge was supposed to cost $350 million and have opened in 2014, however, the bridge is still not completed and ends in an empty field on the North Korean side. The bridge was supposed to link a special economic zone (SEZ), which would enable thousands more vehicles to cross each week, but the SEZ has yet to be realized.

In 2015 a new park area (that includes a water park) was constructed by the old bridge.
Additional plans (on top of multiple others going back many years) for Sinuiju have been placed forward by Kim Jong Un, which would see scores of new apartment blocks constructed, new factories, and recreational sites as well. Kim's stated goal is to turn the city into a "gateway city" and would have the plan completed in 5 years.




Hoeryong Border Crossing


Between 2008 and 2013, the border crossing here was expanded. After a major 2016 flood, the site was repaired and the city also experienced large-scale changes (in part to help facilitate the growth of the personality cult surrounding Kim Jong Suk, the grandmother of Kim Jong Un).


This side-by-side comparison shows the substantial enlargement of the administration and customs buildings on the North Korean side between 2008 and 2018. The crossing bridge itself hasn't changed, but now the country has greater control over what crosses (for combating smugglers) and makes more efficient use of the site.




Sambong Border Crossing


Twenty-seven kilometers up river from Hoeryong, is the small town of Sambong. The border crossing there has always been small, and it remains small, but there have been some expansion of facilities. This gives evidence to the importance the regime has placed on cracking down on smuggling, illegal crossings, and being able to catch all of the revenue the state is owed.



Namyang-Tumen Border Crossing

As with Hoeryong, Namyang has been experiencing major changes throughout the city. New housing, new schools, and an enlarged border crossing connecting Namyang to the much larger Chinese city of Tumen.


Roughly 57% of Tumen's population of 136,000 are of Korean descent. This makes the city a natural trading post, and so the growth of Namyang has become more important as trade with China has continued to heat up (despite sanctions) for many years. Control over the area is also important as most North Korea defections happen along areas with China where there is a strong ethnic Korean population.

The original road bridge was only wide enough to carry one-way traffic. The new bridge looks to be able to carry two lanes of two-way traffic, greatly enhancing commerce in the region.




Wonchong (Wonjong) Border Crossing


Located in the special economic zone of Rason (Rajin), the slow expansion of the Wonchong border crossing has been underway for over a decade, but the final push to completion has happened in the past three years.


The crossing expansion is part of a larger process of strengthening infrastructure ties from Rason to both China and Russia, including highways and port facilities. The new bridge allows for two lanes of two-way traffic, whereas the original crossing was only wide enough for vehicles to come through single file.

Under the Trump Administration, China has taken an intermittently harder line to enforcing UN sanctions, where it had been a notorious weak spot. Regardless, limited legal trade keeps growing and illicit trade (specifically among private and local actors) remains a much-needed lifeline for North Korea. Kim Jong Un's continued placement of importance on these border crossings shows his intentions to keep trade going and, perhaps, his hopes that sanctions will be lifted and so the country better have the infrastructure to deal with the volume when the floodgates open.


This Google Map shows all of the different active and former border crossings with China, Russia, and South Korea.





--Jacob Bogle, December 4, 2017
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Thursday, November 1, 2018

Prison Camp 22 Today

Camp 22 (Kwanliso 22) was a major prison camp within North Korea's extensive prison system. Located in the far north of the country in North Hamgyong Province, it covered some 87 square miles and had the capacity to hold over 20,000 prisoners. In 2012, reporting from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and others suggested that the camp had been closed down and its thousands of prisoners either murdered (including by starvation) or transferred to other prison camps.



While the outline of the security fence system remains, the fences and guard towers have all been demolished. As well, during the 2012-2013 time frame, regular domestic buildings were constructed including town administrative buildings, Juche study halls, and monuments. These are items that are largely missing from prison camps but exist in practically every town and village in the country. This strongly suggests that the site has been turned over to civilian use, possibly as a non-penal exile site (as the main roads in and out of the former camp still retain access control points).


The largest changes to the former camp facilities, besides the removal of fencing and guard posts, seems to be the demolition of two buildings within the camp's administrative center, which includes the torture facility.

Camp administrative center in 2010 with buildings of interest.


Camp administrative center with unidentified building and the torture center demolished as of 2018.


Changes to the villages within the camp attest to its current non-penal nature and shows that something did in fact change in the area's administration after 2012 when all of these changes began to appear.

Raksaeng-ri, a village within the camp as seen in 2011.

Raksaeng-ri after camp closure. Common civilian buildings have been constructed.


The village of Kulsan-ri in 2011.

Kulsan with a new school and other buildings as of 2018.


Agricultural and mining activities appear to have continued with little interruption since the closure as crops can be seen in various stages of growth and harvest over the years, and trains still visit the mining depot. However, the entrance points to the area are still controlled by check points. All of this leads me to believe that the camp is now being used for either one of two things.

The first is that is could now be a regular agricultural and mining area, however, the government still hasn't fully sanitized the former camp of bodies and other evidence that this was a terrible place and so needs greater control over who gets in and out.
The second is that this is a non-penal location used to send exiles and other non-criminal undesirables. The nearby county of Onsong (which also used to have a prison camp) and the northern reaches of the country in general have long been regions to which the government sent exiles. Pyongyang is regularly purged of "lesser" citizens and there are reports of "abnormal" people (like dwarfs) being rounded up and sent to places out of sight of the capital and visitors. 

There is a third option but it is unlikely, and that is that the camp is still a prison but is being administered in a radically new way.

The main entrance check point as seen in 2016.

It is an unequivocal positive that there is one less prison in North Korea, however the regime seems to show no real interest in doing away with political prison camps or mass internment in general. Prisons like Chongjin, Kaechon, and Chongori have all been expanded in the last decade and repression continues unabated.


--Jacob Bogle 11/1/18
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Friday, October 5, 2018

The Vatican's Abbey in North Korea

Few realize that Korea was once the most Christian region in Asia, particularly Pyongyang. In fact, Kim Il Sung's own father was a Protestant deacon. After the division of the Korean peninsula, Kim Il Sung began a mass purge of Christians and suppressed all forms of religion, including Buddhism and traditional folk beliefs. Several hundred former religions structures survived these purges and the Korean War, but they played an ever-diminishing role in the lives of the people. Today, only token "churches" and "temples" exist in the country, and a few Buddhist sites that are scattered around are left open as tourist spots.

By Kaliwallace, DeviantArt.

Just outside of the urban core of the coastal city of Wonsan exists a curious remnant of the former religious life of the northern Korean people. Although monks, nuns, and their associated religious buildings existed in the area since the 1920s, the Territorial Abbey of Tokwon wasn't established until 1940. It only managed to service the surrounding counties until 1949, as that's when things began to drastically change. In May 1949, North Korean secret police arrested the Abbey's 80 or so Catholic personnel (which included foreigners as well) and over the next several years 35 of them had died from execution, hard labor, and starvation. Among those who died was the Benedictine Abbot-Bishop Boniface Sauer, who died on February 1, 1950. In 1952 the remaining German monks and sisters were deported.

Wonsan University of Agriculture. Google Earth, Nov. 3, 2017.

The Abbey building itself suffered bombing damage during the Korean War, but it was later converted to secular use. It now sits on the campus of the Wonsan University of Agriculture. 
Some of the survivors established a new monastery in South Korea, and that monastery is the technical administrator of Tokwon - however no one is allowed to visit Tokwon and no religious services are held there. Despite the events of history and the reality on the ground, Tokwon is still one of the few official territorial abbeys of the Catholic Church, and the only one in Asia.

Tokwon Abbey building. Google Earth, Nov. 3, 2017.

Abbot-Bishop Boniface Sauer and the other Tokwon martyrs are now among over 100 North Korean Catholics who are under consideration for beatification. One of the major accomplishments of the monks and nuns of Tokwon was the translation of the New Testament epistles and the Book of Revelation into Korean.

Abbot-Bishop Boniface Sauer (bottom row, center) and the brothers of Tokwon. Image date unknown.

Christianity (all denominations) went from one of the largest faiths in North Korea, with over 1.7 million adherents prior to the Korean War, to as few as 11,000 mostly older followers. The only official Christian organization in the country is the Korean Christian Federation, which claims some 10,000 members. While the North Korean Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it also bans any activities that may detract from the power of the state, organizations that could be tools of imperialism, and other related prohibitions. Under these vague terms, the state can suppress any religion it desires. Indeed, Christians in North Korea are considered the most oppressed religious group in the world and countless thousands have been murdered by the regime in concentration camps.

The newly completed Abbey. Original date and source unknown.

When Korea was divided, access to countless human stories and historical sites vanished from the face of the earth. We can use satellite images, defector testimony, and the ever-shrinking pool of living memory to help reconstruct the past, but the true story of the millions who have survived, endured, or died over the course of the past 70 years will only ever been known when North Korea is finally opened to the world.