«Фото-воспоминания: На поезде из КНДР в Россию» (Photo-memories: DPRK-Russia by train) в 92-м выпуске ежегодного Альманаха южнокорейского отделения Королевского Азиатского Сообщества Великобритании в г. Сеуле

Our group at the Pyongyang train station

9 июня 2018 года состоялось празднование 118-летия южнокорейского отделения Королевского Азиатского Сообщества Великобритании в г. Сеуле, официально открытого действующим послом Великобритании в Корее г-ном Губбинсом в 1900-м году.

Ежегодно ко дню рождения КАС в г. Сеуле выходит в печать Альманах с академическими публикациями о Корее. Первое издание данного журнала вышло в печать в 1900-м году, что фактически делает его старейшим и наиболее долго существующим академическим альманахом в области корееведения в мире.

В этом году в 92-й номер англоязычного сборника был включен и документальный фото-очерк Виктории Ким Photo-memories: DPRK-Russia by train («Фото-воспоминания: На поезде из КНДР в Россию»), написанный на основе путевых фото-заметок на русском языке, опубликованных ранее на сайте «Коре Сарам»: Непарадный Пхеньян, На поезде из КНДР в Россию: Южный и Северный Хамген и Берегами Туманной Реки: Расон и Туманган.

Включение публицистического текста в престижный академический журнал сама Виктория считает большой удачей – ниже приводим полную версию данного фото-очерка, а видео-лекции Виктории об истории Коре Сарам и корейской диаспоре Узбекистана в китайском и южнокорейском отделениях Королевского Азиатского Сообщества Великобритании в гг. Пекине и Сеуле доступны для просмотра нашим читателям в публикации Год 81-й: В человеческой памяти о Коре Сарам остаются большие пробелы.


Photo-Memories: DPRK-Russia By Train

Victoria Kim

Recreating the visual chronicle of my recent trip to North Korea, the most difficult, perhaps, is to recollect and merge back together all the fragmentary thoughts and impressions left after visiting this unique country surprising a rare tourist in so many unexpected ways.

The main purpose of this trip was to trace the roots of my Korean ancestors also known as Koryo Saram or the Korean people who migrated from the very north of the Korean Peninsula to the Russian Far East more than 155 years ago, having crossed the border of present-day North Korea with China and Russia over the Tumen River. The majority of them originated from North Hamgyong Province and it was the first time Western tourists were ever allowed to visit this remote and isolated DPRK’s most-northern region and enter the Russian territory from there on a regular passenger train, thus directly repeating the ancient route of my ancestors from Korea.

Our group at the Pyongyang train station

In the course of this train journey, we traveled North Korea for a week, crossing its industrially developed part first from west to east – from Pyongyang to Hamhung – and then all the way up north along the coastline and to the very edge of the East Korea Bay, past the towns and fishing villages of South and North Hamgyong provinces – to Kimchaek and Chongjin – as well as the free economic area of Rason located on the actual tri-border with China and Russia.


In the first part of my photo-narrative, you will see the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, as I witnessed it myself on the two-and-a-half February days – simple and unparalleled, and very different from the fantastically solemn image of the “powerful center of the axis of evil” often and very generously rewarded to it by the press. On the contrary and at first glance, I could not entirely understand this city densely covered with fog and, possibly, even smog. However, the grayish veil of this haze hid a special charm, for there in its banal everyday mystery, real life unfolded at the same time.

Bicycle riders in front of the Juche Tower

What can you see, learn and say about the real life of ordinary people in the capital of the most isolated, scandalous and criticized country in the world in two and a half days? Probably not so much, especially given the fact tourists in North Korea are banned from free movement, and at all places, in all directions and on all planned routes we were always accompanied by guides – even on the train itself – the guides whose main task was not to let us stumble in the perception of fundamental ideas and values of the Juche planet’s state system.

Our guide in front of the USS Pueblo captured by North Koreans in 1968

A bird’s-eye view of Pyongyang

Therefore, I can only keep vague memories and images left in my mind – of the unsmiling faces in crowded and slow buses on linear streets during the rush hour, of short and slender people in dark winter clothes hurriedly walking in even rows to work in the morning, accompanied by the crystal-clear female voices rising like the elegant crane flocks into the sky together with the sounds of North Korean military marches bursting into the air from all the city’s megaphones and loud speakers…

A military fragment at the Great Patriotic War Liberation Victory Museum

The frozen Taedong river

The wind howling early in the morning on the 39th floor of the (in)famous Yanggakdo Hotel – where all foreigners are bound to stay – that also sounded like a military march at the wee hours to my sleepy ears… The view of the frozen Taedong River at dawn from my frosty window. The city from a bird’s-eye view, the smiles and jokes of our guides, war propaganda on the hand-drawn and watercolor-painted posters, barbecue, draft beers and bowling in the center… And at the end, the song “My Korea” with a microphone on the bus on our last night in Pyongyang.

A barwoman in central Pyongyang

Bidding farewell to our Pyongyang guide Ms. Kim


Our journey became the first DPRK-Russia trans-country crossing over the Tumen River – from the town of Tumangang in North Korea to the neighboring Khasan in Russia. Thus it resembled completely the original route my Korean ancestors took while crossing the Tumen River to China and Russia more than 155 years ago, never to return again to their historical motherland.

So many words were said and so many songs written about the Tumen River “full of cry and tears” – a symbolic and de facto border that has forever separated Koryo Saram from Korea, having only left memories about the unknown, mysterious and thus even more desirable land, the memories kept in the imagination of posterior generations, in their diasporal folklore and in the literature of Soviet Koreans.

Piles of solid-frozen human and animal manure used as “organic” field fertilizer

Naturally, I also desired to see North Korea with my own eyes and even more so I wished to visit the land where my Korean ancestors were born in the faraway emptiness of Hamgyong – now split into two: northern and southern – the cold and barren wilderness which they in their own time fled starving and to where later all unwilling and/or purposeful offenders of the new national ideological cult were mercilessly brought.

Our group became the first ever allowed to visit the earlier restricted and sealed North Hamgyong Province. We could see it with our own eyes from the windows of our train and at the random passenger stations, and those unique moments have stayed reflected in our pictures.

Outdated infrastructure at one of the train stations in South Hamgyong

Here are the images shot during my journey through South and North Hamgyong, where – likewise earlier in Pyongyang – I wanted most of all to understand the details revealing common people’s lives – a task almost impossible for an ordinary tourist.

Fieldwork in the middle of winter in South Hamgyong

Foreigners in North Korea live on a separate planet, restricted from any real interaction with locals and their everyday realities by all kinds of barriers – linguistic, cultural, ideological, etc. – by being constantly spied on, but also by the parallels systems of mobile communication and money exchange. North Koreans cannot call foreigners by phone even inside their own country, there’s no internet as we know it, and foreigners are not allowed to use the local currency (DPRK won) or even buy anything at small shops or the majority of street markets.

Locals at a train station in North Korea

Train attendants and security guards at work

This is how paradoxically, maybe, our train – free of the systematic control over foreign tourists – became an unexpected window into the real-time North Korea and we were able to cross it almost “freely,” look at it from the different angle and “dive” into it along the way. How much we have digested and understood is difficult to say.

Village residents in North Hamgyong

Most likely, we were only able to catch (and record) a handful of random moments and these are the glimpses on display in my photo diary of this journey across North Korea.

Many more of such moments stayed hidden and undisclosed – although never forgotten – at the nameless stations of this most northern province buried in snow, where the paperless locals were desperately trying to hop on the trains that cross the country like the blood flow rushing through veins in a human body. Limited from this only available form of transportation on the frozen roads – besides bicycles and oxen – and unable to pass multiple levels of control comprised of the railway security, military and train attendants, so many people were left fighting and crying outside the train windows and behind the camera, with only the traces of their real lives staying behind.


We concluded our journey across the DPRK in Rason (formerly Rajin), the northeastern special status territory isolated from the rest of North Korea. Foreigners have much easier access to Rason than locals and five currencies are officially operated here: U.S. dollars, euros, Chinese renminbi, Japanese yen and Russian rubles. Rason also had its special mobile communication system unreachable from other parts of the DPRK.

Arriving to the special status city of Rason

Rason city center

Having crossed most of the country by train, we came here to familiarize ourselves with the local economy’s latest achievements and enjoy all the beautiful scenery of North Korea’s Far East. During the following couple of days and with the help of our new guides – both sharing my surname Kim – we saw a new salmon breeding factory, a new soft drinks and spirits production plant, a new shoes factory and store, the only branch of Golden Triangular Bank operating solely in Rason and a North Korean secondary school specializing in foreign languages.

Golden Triangular Bank’s employees in Rason

The bank branch was normally closed on the weekends; however, they opened it especially for us as we were preparing to cross the neighboring Russian border and needed to exchange our renminbi, dollars and euros into rubles. They also allowed us to open bank accounts in the DPRK and even gave special cash cards as souvenirs for our memories. Needless to say, this was the only place we could ever use them.

One of our trip’s highlights in Rason was visiting the five-star Emperor Hotel near Pipha Island. Its owner – a famous Hong Kong millionaire – has opened here one of the very few casinos in North Korea; currently, it is incredibly popular among Chinese tourists.

Emperor Hotel near Pipha island

Residents of Rason

And the most special part of the program for me was our visit to the secondary school where during one half-hour English language session we could communicate directly with North Korean students, having been first instructed on which topics we could not talk about with them (namely, religion, sex and politics in the DPRK).

Secondary school propaganda posters in Rason

Rason shoe factory workers

Our final destination in North Korea was Tumangang – a town on the very border with Russia. There we entered the Friendship House, where the DPRK and Soviet (now Russian) leadership regularly met, and saw the Tumen River – the river my Korean ancestors crossed over 155 years ago, searching for a better future. Thus we repeated their historical one-way crossing – not to return back to North Korea but travel further into Russia, passing through the villages of Kraskino and Posyet on our way to the strategically important military port of Vladivostok.

DPRK-Russia Friendship House and its guide at the Tumangang-Khasan border

The Tumen river a.k.a. Tumangang in Korean and the Russian Far East behind it

This unique journey across North Korea has left me with unforgettable memories and mixed feelings. Its most original part was our train trip through the Hamgyong region, with a very short nighttime stopover in Riwon – a little coastal fishing town where my grandfather’s whole family was from.

Oxen are still the most vital mode of transportation in rural North Korea

A bicycle rider on the road to Tumangang

Following the steps of Koryo Saram, I could visit and get acquainted with the most isolated and rare country in the world and the most important outcome I could make for myself out of this trip was the mere thought that even in such a brutal and heavily militarized state as the DPRK there are a lot of completely normal and actually very nice people, most of whom have been granted with a very complex fate from the beginning due to the simple fact of being born and raised there.

I truly hope for positive changes in their lives and in their motherland – and this probably is the only thing I will continuously wish for.

Local residents in the town of Tumangang

The actual triborder area between North Korea, Russia and China

Victoria Kim holds an MA from the Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS in Korean Studies and MA from the University of Bolton in International Multimedia Journalism. Originally from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, she is currently based in Beijing, China, as a researcher and documentary storyteller. She is the author of Lost and Found in Uzbekistan: The Korean Story, The Soviet Korean Who Ended The Forgotten War and A Window into North Korea. Victoria can be reached at vkimsky@gmail.com. She traveled to North Korea with Koryo Tours (koryogroup.com)


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