Agony and Ecstasy in Wonsan

When I put up my post on Kim Jong Il’s palace northeast of Pyongyang, Curtis Melvin  commented and pasted  in a link to this Daily NK article, a guide to Kim Jong Il’s various palaces and residences.  (If you haven’t seen it yet, by the way, we’ve revealed an interesting answer to our pyramid mystery.) One passage in the article sounded like something I’d seen:

Wonsan Chalet

Where Kim Jong Il and his relatives hunt guillemots or ful seals, enjoy jet ski in winter. Also there are records on Kim’s son or family members came together and that Bochun electronic band actors served them. (Testimony from Fujimoto Kenji, former cook of Kim Jong Il )

Yup, I think I know the place.  Here’s Wonsan:


Overall, there isn’t much to see there.  It has a pretty unfortunate history.  Our own bombing of the city during the Korean War was mercilless and no doubt cost plenty of innocent life.  Wonsan was also  a center of Christianity in North Korea during the Japanese occupation, which not only suggests an especially adversarial relationship with the occupiers, but that it also bore the brunt of Kim Il Sung’s anti-Christian  purges in the 50’s.  Fast forward to 1994, and Wonsan was one of the industrial cities along the East coast that likely had a disproportionate share of deaths in the Great Famine.  Carefree Newport Beach this is not.

That long fist-shaped spit of land draws the eye, and move in closer, and you see this.  Bingo.

wonsan2.jpg   wonsan3.jpg    wonsan4.jpg

I can’t call this confirmed, but if you explore North Korea thoroughly on Google Earth, you’ll have more than enough fingers to count the houses of similar opulence.


At first glance, it doesn’t seem as well guarded as the one in Pyongyang, until you pan to the South and see that expanse of open ground pitted with revetments, which turns out to be  …


… a big military airfield covering the entire southern boundary of the palace grounds.  The aircraft parked along the runway are not exactly the state of the art.  On the left, MiG-17s; on the right, MiG-21s.  You can see more modern aircraft in other places, notably MiG-23s and Su-25s.

wonsan-mig-17.jpg   wonsan-mig-21.jpg

There was one other point of interest in Wonsan.   I believe this is the  Mangyongbong-92, which runs ran a regular ferry service between Wonsan and Niigata, and which  became the object of protest and suspicion as Japanese-North Korean relations went into the toilet.

wonsan-ku-ship-i.jpg   wonsan-92.jpg

This ship is reputedly also the means of conveying spies, drugs, and counterfeit currency into Japan, and for bringing the laundered proceeds,  WMD components, and delicacies for Kim Jong Il out.

Update, 7 July 2009:   South Korean newspapers are reporting that Kim Jong Il has moved out of Pyongyang to convalesce and recover in his coastal estate in Wonsan.  The Daily NK, staffed in large part by North Korean defectors, shows a Google Earth image of a completely different palace from the one shown above, and one that I hadn’t see in the high-res image previously.

It has been suggested that if Kim is staying in Wonsan, he must have returned there after completing his onsite inspections in mid-May, or that he may even have failed to complete the visits at all. He was reported in the North Korea media to have finished all the inspections; the reports were accompanied by photos.

If Kim Jong Il has been staying in Wonsan for more than a month, it is probable that he has been staying at Hyangsan First Villa. This place is well-known as the site of one of Kim’s personal villas. It is also adjacent to the well-known Wonsan Songdowon Beach, which was reconstructed in the mid-1990s. In addition to Kim’s personal villa, buildings for family members and acquaintances can be found there.  [Daily NK]

This second palace is about five miles north of the one adjacent to the runway.  The Daily NK’s little thumbnail doesn’t do it justice.  It’s very large.  The first image shows both palaces and the distance between them.  Click for full size.

wonsan-palaces-37000.jpg      hyangsan-palace-9000.jpg     hyangsan-palace-6600-1.jpg      hyangsan-palace-3700-2.jpg       hyangsan-palace-3700-1.jpg       hyangsan-palace-5600-2.jpg

This being North Korea, the some animals are more equal than others.  Just a few miles to the south, little shacks sit uneasily beside hills covered with graves:

wonsan-graves-7.jpg         wonsan-graves.jpg     wonsan-graves-2.jpg         wonsan-graves-3.jpg         wonsan-graves-4.jpg         wonsan-graves-6.jpg

Although I didn’t search every hill, the scale of the graveyards around Wonsan still doesn’t approach that of the vast ossuary that surrounds at Hamhung.  Of course, I can’t tell you what these people died of (though judging by contemporary accounts, it wasn’t obesity).  All I can show you is the sheer size of it.  The areas surrounded by white polygons are packed with graves.  These aren’t onesies and twosies; these are areas occupied predominantly by burial mounds.  Even outside the marked polygons, most of the hills in this image are covered with graves in various concentrations.  I only highlighted the greatest concentrations until I couldn’t stand the bleakness of it any more.


And there you have it — the perfection of the socialist ideal of enforced equality.  Or so some would tell you.

[Update, 8 October 2009:   Recently, I learned that the noted human rights researcher David Hawk would be traveling to Seoul to interview North Korean refugees there.  I asked Mr. Hawk to seek out former residents of Hamhung to confirm that the objects I’d identified as graves really were graves.  One witness reported that he’d recently been to the location shown in the next three images below and reported that he saw only orchards, not graves.  On further examination, I suspect he may be right.  As a result, I am no longer confident that all of the images in that post show graves, and that raises similar questions about the images in the July update to this post, above.  Given the challenges of revealing what North Korea doesn’t want us to discuss at all, I can only follow the best evidence available to me.  I will continue to seek out North Koreans to confirm what these images show and update this post as I learn more.]


  1. I initially thought the same thing about the Mangyongbong-92, but this is not it. I have actually been to this port, and the Mangyongbong-92 docks at the pier just to the right of the ship pictured above…at the big “T” shaped pier in front of the monument.

  2. Any characteristics of the ship itself you can distinguish? It’s very hard to believe there could be that many other boats of this size, and the pictures do seem the same.

  3. My compliments for your search. I found another military airport you don’t know, I think. It is located at 39°59’52” N and 127°36’60”E degree, in the valley north the city of Hamhung. It is possible to count almost 7 plus another 12 mig 21 near the tarmac (probably wrecks), 23 well-conditions mig 21 at the south end of the airfield, plus 6 mig 19 near the mig21 and, notably, another 2 mig 21 near a door for a subterranean hangar, plus two semi-circular camouflaged access to the hill near the airfield.

    Bye, Luigi

  4. Stop using North Korea as an excuse to take cheat shots at socialism. I don’t think you really believe what NK had built is anything remotely close to socialism.

  5. Just a question:

    Couldn’t the graveyards in the mountains be “historical”, in the sense that that is where Koreans bury thier dead? (i.e. like Philipines?). Just curious because I was wondering if perhaps you were suggesting that the burial sites are ALL recent (i.e. 10 years)?


  6. Of course it’s possible, as I say in the post. Proof that these are famine victims would require witness corroboration. On the other hand, it would still be an aberration. One does not see such a concentration of graves in other regions of North Korea, and certainly not in South Korea.

  7. Jonathan, using North Korea to criticise socialism is cheap. I’m talking about reality on the ground, not the ideology that the regime pays lip service to. In socialism, everyone works for the common good; in North Korea, everyone works for the good of Kim Jong Il. In socialism, the wealthy generated by the people are redistributed to the people; in North Korea, the wealth is funnelled to the ruling class. What the Kims have built doesn’t even qualify as feudalism, since in feudalism it is in the interest of the landlords to keep the serfs fed and productive, and after paying a share of their produce in taxes, the serfs could do what they wanted with what remained. North Korea is most reminiscent of the slave societies of antiquity, where the rulers were also exalted as living gods. You can argue that any attempt at socialism inevitably devolves into slave society, but I don’t think that has to be the case.

  8. Yu:

    Where on earth can we find this “reality on the ground” that you have described?

  9. Hey I think I found another one of Kim’s palaces in hungham. Its coordinates are Latitude 39.806 N and Longitude 127.6589 E. There are also wealthy subdivision thingys north of this palace

  10. anton – the last coordinates you posted look very interesting in Google Earth.
    39.8594 N, 127.7777 E.
    There appears to be a private train station, a private beach and a rather unusual looking modern palace with a dramatic foot bridge to a rock island overlooking the sea.

  11. What North Korea practices is not socialism, and it’s certainly not the inevitable end state of socialism (which is a broad ideology). Is North Korea’s government similar to Scandinavian or Canadian governments? Socialism is, quite simply, taking care of society above the individual. There are plenty of offshoots and divisions of socialism (communism and its varieties, for instance) that get confused with the core ideology. And of course that core concept can be corrupted, just like any other ideology can be and is corrupted. Socialist policy works best when put into practice via a truly democratic or republican government. That doesn’t mean that the ideology itself is flawed or broken. We *should* look at the world from a social rather than an individual perspective. Unfortunately, we have human nature to contend with, and it’s difficult to sustain any system – including democracy (200-year average lifespan) – no matter how good it looks on paper.

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