39.91 N, 127.55 E: Hamhung, Haunted City

In 1997, Washington Post correspondent Keith Richburg was allowed into the city of Hamhung, just inland from North Korea’s east coast, to try to find the truth behind fragmentary rumors of a famine inside the world’s most isolated country. Although Hamhung is North Korea’s second-largest city and a key industrial center, it was an isolated place with few foreign visitors, little commerce with the outside world, and at a great distance from any international border. This is what Hamhung looks like today. But in 1997, the reporter found utter economic blight and devastation there: idled factories, dark streets, dying and displaced people:

HAMHUNG, North Korea — A visit to this remote and desolate city near North Korea’s eastern coast provides a rare glimpse of the country’s near-total economic collapse. The crisis is over food — or the lack of it — but the country’s problems run much deeper, to the core of a socialist system that simply has ceased to function.

You can start at Hamhung’s local hospital, a dilapidated, cavernous 1,000-bed facility without lights, where the stench of urine fills the dark corridors, and patients recovering from surgery writhe in pain on dirty sheets in unheated rooms. There are no antibiotics, no intravenous drips and no stretchers, so workers carry patients on their backs. There were only 250 patients during a recent visit; few sick people bother coming, since the hospital has no food and no medicine.

“We have a shortage of anesthesia, so the patients have to go through pain during surgery,” said Dr. Lee Huyn Myung, as he points to a man gripping his mattress after a colon operation. Most of the patients have rectal, stomach or liver problems, the result of slow starvation, he said. Almost all are malnourished.

From the hospital, travel across this city past gray cement buildings that look half-finished or simply abandoned, past lots strewed with broken-down Soviet-era trucks that cannot be started because there are no spare parts. Then drive down narrow, winding mud roads until you reach the Hamhung orphanage and talk to its director, Choi Kwang Oak.

The orphanage is divided into several small rooms, with playpens for the smallest infants. Almost all the children are malnourished, with browning hair, bald patches on their scalps and sores on their heads and faces. The most severely malnourished are listless and unresponsive.

There are 198 children under age 4 at the orphanage, and about 20 percent are expected to die because they arrived too late to be helped. About 70 percent of the children here were orphaned when their parents died of malnutrition or disease, Choi said. The other 30 percent simply were abandoned and left for dead by parents too poor and too hungry to feed them.

“Some parents just put them outside on the street and leave them to nature,” Choi said. “Sometimes people pick them up and bring them here.” And other times? “They just die.” The orphanage is surrounded by high hills covered with graves and stone markers. It is an old burial ground, she said. But there are also many new graves. [Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1997, emphasis mine]

Similarly, this 1999 Reuters report described widespread malnutrition that had stunted 50% of the surviving children. Visiting a local orphanage, a reporter described it as “surrounded on all three sides by hills covered in graves.” We will return to the matter of those graves in a moment.

These were not the only reports of Hamhung’s silent devastation to leak out to Earth. In 1998, one former engineering student told Kyodo News Service that more than 10% of the city’s population, including his mother, had starved to death, and that another 10% had fled the city to find food. Some would have fled by train. Those who could not afford tickets and obtain travel passes are unlikely to have survived the long walk in their weakened condition. The student added that “the food is going to the troops and that party cadres are hoarding up to a year’s grain for themselves and their families.” Andrew Natsios, a former AID worker, USAID Administrator, and author of “The Great North Koreans Famine” described Hamhung as “the city most devastated by the famine” and reported that hunger had triggered an unsuccessful mutiny against the regime. The journalist Jasper Becker bought back the life of a former Hamhung resident who walked to China after her husband perished in the famine. Chinese police were paying bounties for North Korean refugees, but Becker outbid them to save her from repatriation to a North Korean gulag.

Today, the world knows that between 1994 and 2000, anywhere from 600,000 to 2.5 million people died in what is what Natsios called The Great Famine, or as the official propaganda describes it, The March of Tribulation. North Korea watchers have debated the question of mortality in Hamhung because of how that toll could impact the overall death toll from the Great Famine. If in fact the death toll from the area around Hamhung was worse than what most refugees described — and most refugees came from the border areas further north — then this would suggest that the death tolls these refugees reported would still understate higher death tolls in places like Hamhung.

But is there any empirical evidence that would corroborate stories of such devastation? If those reports are true, we would expect to see numerous grave sites in the hills around the city. Koreans traditionally bury their dead under spherical mounds on high ground, and Korean cemeteries have a distinctive appearance in satellite imagery. This image of the National Cemetery in Seoul provides a baseline comparison for the size, shape, and general appearance of Korean graves, though one seldom sees North Korean graves laid out in such neat rows.

Less than a year ago, Google Earth published the first high-resolution images of Hamhung. In the hills around the city, one can see a distinctive rash of small mounds packed haphazardly into the steep slopes. What begins as a small, well-tended cemetery consumes an entire hill …

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[Click image for full size.]
and the hills around it, …

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and seemingly, every speck of unoccupied land that surrounds this city of 874,000 souls.

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On some of the hills, the graves are crowded together so tightly that the density of death greatly exceeds the density of life in the city below.

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There are other large, seemingly improvised cemeteries in North Korea. This one is just east of the capital, Pyongyang.

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Hamhung, however, is the only city I know of where the combined surface area of the cemeteries rivals that of the city itself. Even in North Korea, Hamhung is the only place where I found it possible to look down on such an immense concentration of death. The fact that no other place even approaches the scale of what we see here suggests that we’re looking a horrible aberration. Every hill around the city is a burial site, though not always of equal size and density. On this rocky ridge west of the city, the forest is seeded with graves:

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The small dots in the forest throughout the image are graves. The placemarks in the lower left-hand corner of the image are higher density burial sites. Note the tunnel entrances in the upper right-hand corner of the image. The earthen berms in front of the entrances suggest that they’re probably for some kind of military use. Some kind of large facility is being built just to the east of this image, no doubt at great expense. I’ll venture no guess as to its purpose, except to infer for that it won’t be used for growing food.

It would be impossible to count the graves in these hills, but we can quickly and conservatively estimate that the number must be in the tens of thousands. The polygon in the image below is almost completely filled with graves, in an approximate density of 25 graves for every 400 square meters, for a density factor of 0.0625 graves per square meter. The polygon is 180 meters from north to south, and 980 meters — nearly a full kilometer long — from east to west.

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That works out to more than 11,000 graves on just this one ridge. Starting from the same polygon, let’s rise to an altitude of 35,000 feet to put that polygon into the spatial context of the other burial sites in the hills around Hamhung. The arrows in the image below point only toward large, dense concentrations of graves.

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Even a cursory examination of these hills shows that the total number of graves probably exceeds 100,000. If other smaller and less dense burial areas are added in, it could plausibly exceed twice that. This estimate would obviously undercount any mass burials, such as those witnessed by Andrew Natsios from across the Chinese border, or the deaths of those who died by roadsides or in detention camps elsewhere. It would overcount mass mortality to the extent that some of these graves represent pre-existing or “natural” deaths.

Obviously, there is no way to determine the date or cause of death from a satellite photograph. At the same time, the devotion of so much space to the dead cannot be the natural state of things; after all, it isn’t the natural state of things anywhere else. We will never know for certain what killed these people as long as North Korea is ruled by such an obsessively secretive regime. All we know is that this city is surrounded by an unusually large number and concentration of poorly tended and haphazardly placed graves in a manner consistent with published reports filed from Hamhung during the famine. If these graves do in fact contain famine victims, and if our very rough estimate of 100,000 to 200,000 graves is accurate, it would generally corroborate the engineering student’s claim that 10% of the population of North Korea’s second-largest city starved to death during the Great Famine.

Stalin infamously observed that a million deaths is a statistic. That is so because of our own incomprehension at the very real significance of each spot on these pock-marked hills. Focus on just one of those graves long enough to imagine the child, the mother, the father, or the provider buried there, instead of seeing mere pixels in a ghastly panorama. It ought to be so even in a nation where for most, to be a pixel in the state’s panorama is the individual’s highest permissible aspiration.

It’s a sobering thing to realize, as a new administration asks itself how to approach this regime, that if these are indeed the victims of the Great Famine, none of them had to die. It wasn’t any disaster or crop failure that killed them. It was the ruthless decisions of one depraved man.

[You can see more Google Earth photo essays of North Korea here.]

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 below show graves.  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.

Update 2, 31 January 2014: I’ve meant to return to this post for some time, preferably after gathering some information from a defector from Hamhung. Unfortunately, not many people make it out of Hamhung, because of its distance from the border. Even so, I’ve reexamined the images carefully and I’ve changed my mind again. I don’t believe these objects are trees. The density, shapes, and shadows are all wrong. Furthermore, season-by-season, the objects don’t change color or density the way trees would; they change color like the grass. My best guess is that they’re graves. I’m not going to say that with confidence until I find witnesses to confirm it.

But there is this. You may want to expand this one to full size (just click).

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Those elongated, box-like objects resting on (or washing out of) the hillside are all between four and seven feet long. Draw your own conclusions.