North Hamgyong: citizens take progress into their own hands

A 'city of the future' in North Hamgyung province, North Korea

A ‘city of the future’ in North Hamgyong province, North Korea

Across the border from North Hamgyong province lies China. This proximity to a foreign country means North Hamgyong province offers its residents increased opportunities for contact with the outside world. These conditions are aided by the fact that North Hamgyong province lies far from the capital city of Pyongyang and its centralised surveillance systems.

One defector from the elite city of Pyongyang tells us, “North Hamgyong province seems a much better place for life than the city of Pyongyang.” He continued by saying that as long as you have the trust of relevant authorities, you can lead a decent life in Pyongyang. However, with one careless mistake made in Pyongyang, individuals can disappear without a single trace.

In Pyongyang, the systems of surveillance and thought-control rule over the city. There is no room to express any form of dissent and it is difficult to engage in activities that go against the sanctioned ideologies. In contrast, North Hamgyong province offers relative freedom. Due to its geographical proximity to China, foreign goods are easier to come by. In the isolated country of North Korea, the diversified origins of goods undeniably goes hand in hand with the diversification of worldviews.

Another defector tells us how much of a shock it was for him when he witnessed life in North Hamgyong province. He had passed through en route to his escape from the country. In his home province, the family had barely enough watered down congee for eating; yet, in North Hamgyong province there was rice. At home, he could never afford to buy bread; yet in North Hamgyong province, residents could afford imported bread from China.

He finished by saying how if the regime allowed freedom of movement (North Koreans cannot change their place of residence without explicit permission from the authorities), he would have settled in North Hamgyong province rather than have chosen to defect.

He is not alone. According to sources from inside the country, North Koreans have even started to talk about the possibility of ‘defecting’ to North Hamgyong province.

In a developed country such as South Korea, the government contributes to the development of newly planned cities through public amenities such as hospitals or schools. In North Korea however, the state plays no role in such new developments. The cities of the future are being built by the citizens themselves. Moreover, North Korea’s new cities are built by those who understand the concept of a free economy: this runs fundamentally against the state policy of Juche.

In North Korea, cities thrive and new cities bloom in places that are located furthest away from the state’s control.