Transformation of Samjiyon
North Korea has recently published a photo book titled “Transformation of Samjiyon.” As one of the coldest regions on the Korean Peninsula, the northern city of Samjiyon remained a remote mountainous village where only shabby log cabins were found until the 1960s. Under the leadership of the party, however, Samjiyon freshened up its looks in the 1970s and in the 2000s. And today, it has undergone a complete change yet again. This is what the photo book explains.
North Korean media have reported that leader Kim Jong-un visited Samjiyon City under construction several times, indicating the top leader’s keen interest in the construction project. They have repeatedly stressed that Samjiyon is a good example of a cultural city in a mountain area.
Today, we’ll learn about the characteristics and implications of the construction of Samjiyon City in North Korea from Dr. Oh Sam-eon, researcher at the National Institute of Forest Science.
Samjiyon is situated on the lava plateau of Mt. Baekdu, which is dubbed the roof of the Korean Peninsula, in the North Korea-China border region. The area is rich in natural tourist attractions. Samjiyon consists of three ponds located side by side. The word “samji” means “three pools.”
Various tree species including Khingan fir, larch and spruce are found in the Samjiyon area, which has thick primeval forests. The area is home to plants that only grow in alpine regions, such as bog bilberry and shrubby cinquefoil. It is also a habitat for North Korea’s natural monuments like deer and black grouse as well as for fish species including carp, Chinese minnow and mountain trout. Crucian carp, in particular, is a fish species endemic to North Korea and is registered as a natural monument. North Korea says that some 30 rare tree species are only found in this area.
North Korea celebrated the 80th birthday anniversary of former leader Kim Jong-il in Samjiyon City in February 2022. It was unusual that the country held such a commemorative event in the remote region, not in the capital.
During the event, splendid fireworks lit up the sky over the statue of Kim Jong-il. In North Korea, Samjiyon is regarded as a city of revolution.
Samjiyon is home to Mt. Baekdu, a revolutionary site for regime founder Kim Il-sung’s anti-Japanese military activities during the colonial period. North Korea claims that Kim Il-sung’s son Kim Jong-il was born in a secretive military camp on the mountain. For these reasons, North Koreans believe that the so-called “Baekdu bloodline,” which refers to the ruling Kim family, is rooted in Samjiyon.
Almost all citizens in the North, from young students to adults, are supposed to go on field trips to revolutionary battle sites regularly, including the Samjiyon region, as Mt. Baekdu is the most important such site. Local media stress that leader Kim Jong-un’s ascent to the mountain is the proclamation of his conviction to fulfill the self-reliant revolutionary achievements that started from the mountain and the expression of his strong commitment to building the strongest country in the world. North Korea shows the scenes of the leader riding a white horse on the mountain to assert the legitimacy of the Baekdu bloodline, the three-generation lineage from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il and on to Kim Jong-un.
Villages were not formed in Samjiyon for a long time, due to rough terrain and cold weather. Before Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, some forestry workers did physical labor there.
In 1961, North Korea created Samjiyon County by separating some parts of Bochon County in Ryanggang Province and Yonsa County in North Hamgyong Province. In 1967, the country began to plan on developing Mt. Baekdu as a tourist resort. In 1978, the North carried out the massive project of constructing Samjiyon town. The development of the area gained traction, again on a large scale, after current Kim Jong-un came to power.
North Korea began to develop Samjiyon in earnest in 2018. The second phase of construction was finished in late 2019, and Samjiyon was upgraded from a county to a city in December that year. The third phase of construction was completed in late 2021. The development project was focused mostly on tourism.
A new rail line connecting Samjiyon with Hyesan opened in 2019. The 70-kilometer railroad passes through dense coniferous forests. Previously, people would go to Samjiyon on foot or by bus. The new train line enabled easier access to the region and improved tourism infrastructure.
North Korea says it introduced a computer-controlled system to railway stations along the new railroad. Earlier, in 2015, an area northeast of Samjiyon in the border region was designated as an international tourism special zone. Samjiyon Airport was expanded, while a new road was built to connect the airport with a ski resort to boost the convenience of both domestic and foreign tourists.
Newly constructed buildings and facilities in Samjiyon include the Begaebong(베개봉) ski resort, Samjiyon Hotel and Mt. Baekdu Museum. The ski resort, nearby stadiums for winter sports and the hotel are designed to attract foreign tourists. North Korea says that new residential buildings with different heights in Samjiyon make the city look harmonious, rather than too simple, creating an ideal landscape for a mountainous region. The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper says leader Kim Jong-un himself gave instructions on those details.
Roadside trees and parks have significant influence in determining how the image of a city is perceived. Right after taking power, Kim Jong-un stressed the importance of urban landscape and the creation of parks in cities.
Regarding Samjiyon City, in particular, the leader said it is necessary to mix different tree species in an appropriate way so the landscape of the new city will go well with Mt. Baekdu and to set an example of decorating urban parks beautifully and providing a clean and cultural environment.
After Kim instructed officials to create a beautiful urban landscape in Samjiyon, an interesting change was detected. Satellite imagery on Google Earth in March 2018 showed conifers on main streets in the city. But in July 2019, the street trees were all removed. The photos North Korea unveiled in September 2021 showed that birch trees were lined up along Chongbong(청봉) Street. It is assumed that birches were planted after July 2019. Judging from the photos, it seems that mature trees were transplanted. In other words, North Korea replaced all the roadside trees with birch trees to change the landscape of Samjiyon overall. It seems the newly paved roads, the red roofs of the buildings on both sides of the roads, white wooden posts and birch trees contributed to making Samjiyon look like an attractive tourist city. The birch trees along the streets symbolize a change in Samjiyon in the Kim Jong-un era.
Samjiyon is located at the foot of Mt. Baekdu, which was enlisted as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. While carrying out the Samjiyon construction project, North Korea seems to have conducted a separate research project about how to preserve forests in the mountainous area. The Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that “February 17 scientists and technicians” carried out a research project related to forest preservation, although the paper did not fully disclose the specifics.
It is also worth mentioning that environmentally-friendly technology as well as green construction was used for Samjiyon development.
Rodong Sinmun says that officials introduced green building technology to vegetable farms in Samjiyon by using solar heat while keeping nearby forests intact. Also, as part of green construction, the paper says volcanic sand, which is commonly found in the region, was used to protect the exterior walls of buildings. It also cites the examples of reusable rainwater and wastewater treatment technology.
In one of the major characteristics of the Samjiyon construction project, North Korea reconstructed the regional industry using forest resources and provided a model for developing the local economy. Analysts say that the country’s policy of putting emphasis on regional industries and economies has remained unchanged under Kim Jong-un’s rule.
Many of those who have traveled to China may have enjoyed North Korea’s bog bilberry liquor. Bog bilberry, known as deuljjuk(들쭉) in Korean, is a local specialty in Samjiyon. Kim Jong-un inspected a factory producing beverages made from bog bilberry and a factory for potato powder in Samjiyon several times. He evaluated the bog bilberry factory as an exemplary model of the development of local factories and encouraged other plants to build an integrated production system, just like the bog bilberry factory.
In North Korea, the strategy of developing regional economies is mostly about utilizing locally produced resources and materials. The bog bilberry and potato powder factories in Samjiyon answer this purpose. North Korea created a development model that fits the geographical characteristics of the forest city of Samjiyon.
Names of new streets in Samjiyon remind the people of the country’s history of revolution and the region’s natural features. For example, the city’s main road stretching from the statue of Kim Jong-il to the city entrance is named Birch Street. Growing in the Mt. Baekdu area, birch trees are said to symbolize Samjiyon’s identity. New street names, such as “Secretive Military Camp,” “Chongbong,” “Ri Myong-su” and “Begaebong” are associated with Kim Il-sung’s armed resistance against Japan.
Cities in socialist states, including North Korea, build public squares in the center, since mass rallies and celebratory events take place in the squares. North Korea explains that public squares are where the people and their leader meet. In its urban planning, North Korea has created squares in the heart of its cities and built government offices, parks and cultural facilities around the squares. Since the 1970s, the North has erected the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in the innermost part of the squares and connected them with major roads of the cities, with the squares serving as the central axis of the cities.
Before the Samjiyon development project began, a square was formed in the left side of the main road. The statue of Kim Jong-il was set up in the square in September 2016 and the statue became the center of the city. After the creation of the statue, the Samjiyon development project began to hit its stride. The change of the central axis reinforces the image of Samjiyon as a sacred place of revolution and strengthens the symbolic significance of space that represents Kim’s family lineage.
North Korea has pledged to turn all rural villages nationwide into ideal socialist communities that are wealthy and culturally refined, similar to Samjiyon. As a sacred place of revolution, Samjiyon seems to be establishing itself as a new space dedicated to showing the current leader’s achievements.