The Taedong River (대동강) is one of the most famous bodies of water in North Korea, perhaps aside from Lake Chon, the lake nestled in the caldera of Mt. Paektu on the northern border. The Taedong river, at its most famous point, flows through the centre of the capital city, Pyongyang, and serves as the metaphorical heart of the city. The river flows from the Rangnim mountain range deep in the heart of northern Korea through the capital and out into the West Sea at Nampo, passing through the famous West Sea Barrage. Whilst rivers are generally quite boring features of nature, unless you happen to have spent two years studying Geography (Ox-bow lakes and all that). However, tracing the river from its source to its mouth provides a unique profile of the DPRK; whilst only flowing, primarily, through one province, South Pyongan, the river passes industrial centres, agricultural communities, military sites, cities, ports and hydro-power stations. Following the Taedong demonstrates how different the country can be within a relatively small area.
Before I continue – it’s worth adding:
- This article would not have been possible without the use of North Korea Uncovered, the free Google Earth plugin created by Curtis Melvin in 2009. I will include a download link at the end of this article.
- I will also include the coordinates of every location I write about in the following article in case anyone wants to investigate in more detail.
- Whilst the river’s drainage basin is spread over a wide area in the Rangnim mountains, this account will begin at Lake Changjin (Chosin Reservoir) since it is one (of many) sources for the Taedong river.
[장진호] Lake Changjin (Chosin Reservoir) - [40°28’40.00” N 127°08’06.00” E]
Lake Changjin sits in the far north-west of South Hamgyong Province. The lake is man-made and serves as a reservoir. The name ‘Chosin’ derives from the Japanese pronunciation of the word Changjin. The name was cemented by after a famous battle between the Korean People’s Army and UN Forces during the 1950-53 Korean conflict. The nearest town to the lake is Yudam-ni, located at the point where the river leaves the reservoir – this small collection of streams will eventually coagulate to form the Taedong River.
[사창리] Sachang-ni - [40°05’.00” N 126°56’02.00” E]
The first major dam across the Taedong river is just north of the town of Sachang-ni. The Taedong runs North-South through the town whilst a second river, running West-East, meets the Taedong in the town centre becoming a tributary. The town-scape is reminiscent of Kanggye, the capital of Chagang Province in which 4 rivers combine in the city centre. The town’s tower of eternal life, the marble pillars dedicated to the leadership or other ideological event, is situated on the bank of the river near the main bridge. At this point, the river is still thin since and likely quite deep as it’s still moving downwards at a fast pace and eroding vertically rather than horizontally.
(For any keen geographers, there is the beginnings of an Ox-bow lake forming just south of Sachang as the Taedong meanders through the mountains)
[덩흥리] Dokhung-ni - [39°56’40.00” N 126°50’03.00” E]
Dokhung is a small agricultural town located on the banks of the, still very fast moving and thin, Taedong river. The town is notable for being the first noticeable agricultural centre on the banks of the river. The town likely uses the water from the river to irrigate the soil for its crops. The mountainous terrain which dominates the DPRK’s geography means the importance placed on farming and agriculture is immense. The satellite images of the town show fields of crops right up to the foot of the mountain range which surrounds the valley region. There is a small roadbridge which crosses the river at Dokhung, the road then travels along the river bank through the fields and is lined with trees planed, more or less, equidistant from one another. The town is representative of many rural communities in the country. Personally, I am reminded of the small village of Rimhan which sits on the northern limit line in North Hwanghae Province and is visible from the south. Like Rimhan, Dokhung appears to have a threshing centre where the crop is threshed before being transported off-site to join the rest of the national distribution system. Dokhung’s tower of eternal life is located outside a relatively large buildings which likely serves as a community centre, a feature also present in Rimhan. It’s likely that all the residents of Dokchung work in agriculture since the buildings are spaced out amongst the fields, as would be expected in a farming community – the lack of soviet-style residential buildings is striking and refreshing.
[녕원] Nyongwon Power Plant & Dam – [39°52’42.00” N 126°52’42.00” E]
The Nyongwon Power Plant was completed on 09 June 2009 according to the Korean Central News Agency. According to the official news report, the dam was constructed in order to produced electricity and limit the risk of flooding in Pyongyang. The Nyongwon dam has caused a rise in water levels upstream, as is usual with projects of this nature. Downstream of the dam, the river reverts to its natural size, winding its way through narrow river valleys.
[덕천] Tokchon – [39°45’32.00” N 126°18’13.00” E]
Tokchon is the first major city located on the banks of the Taedong river. Before the river reaches the city, it first passes through a huge dam which has created a huge lake upstream. The city of Tokchon is an industrial centre hosting numerous factories including, most notably, the Sungni Motor Plant which sits immediately on the riverbank. The presence of industrial towns and cities on the bank of the river is a recurring theme; later when the river widens the river is a useful transport route, although this far upstream the constant dams make boating hazardous and therefore the factories likely pump water directly from the river for use as coolant. Tokchon is also the first time the Korean State Railway Network meets the Taedong river (since Lake Changjin). The local station is part of the Pyongdok line which runs between central Pyongyang and Kujang Chongnyon. The city is relatively small although still maintains some North Korean style features such as the wide main roads lined with trees, a large stadium by the river and densely packed residential districts, likely housing for factory workers. The city’s factory complexes are mostly located on the outskirts of the city. There is still agriculture taking place along the river at Tokchon, a more industrialised farming style appears to be underway south of the city with a series of identical farms using water from the Taedong to irrigate their crops.
[북창] Bukchang – [39°34’32.00” N 126°18’21.00” E]
Bukchang is a small industrial city on the Taedong river. The prevalence of coal in the region is demonstrated by the numerous coal mines peppered across the landscape; the Bukchang Thermal Power Station capitalises on this, burning coal to power the city’s factories. One of the notable industrial complexes in the city is the Bukchang Aluminium Factory located in the eastern part of the city. The factory even has its own railway line which branches off from the main line at Bukchang station.
[대각] Taegak Youth Dam – [39°34’37.00” N 125°34’37.00” E]
The Taegak Youth Dam and Power Station spans the Taedong River north of Sunchon and east of Anju. The site marks the start of a canal which travels south past Pyongyang all the way down to a lake near the riverside city of Chollima. Like all dams, the Taegak station has created a huge lake upstream which is surrounded by numerous small towns and villages. Most of these small communities seem to be farming villages.
[북창] Pukchang Military Airfield
Pukchang airfield is a military air base just north of the city of Sunchon. Satellites show Mig 23s and Mig 15s stationed at the base. The more modern 23s seem positioned near the runway and are more prevalent around the base whilst the older 15s are further back away from the runway. This data lines up with the supposed stationing of the 60th Air Fighter Wing of the KPA Air Force which operates the two jets. There are also a squadron of helicopters stationed south of the main air base. Alongside the helicopters parked on the grass are a series of larger transport helicopters on concrete landing pads, likely Mil Mi-26s. South of Pukchang airfield, right on the bank of the river, is a bombing range with large targets etched into the landscape. The use of heavy ordnance on the area is apparent due to the limited vegetation growing on the site.
[순천] Sunchon – [39°25’24.00” N 125°56’04.00” E]
Just slightly south of Pukchang is the industrial city of Sunchon. The city seemingly boasts a unique combination of heavy industry and agriculture with the primarily arable landscape peppered with huge factories including the immense Sunchon Cement Factory around which a separate town appears to have begun to develop. The railway station, connected to the Manpo and Pyongra lines, sits on the central square in the city which also hosts a monument to the national leadership. The nearby Sunchon Airport currently serves as a military air base hosting the 55th Fighter Regiment of Mig 29s and Su-25s which are visible in satellite images. The Songchon Barrage on the southern side of Sunchon dams the Taedong river, likely serving as flooding protection for Pyongyang as well as maintaining steady water reserves for use by Sunchon industrial plants.
[미림] Mirim Barrage – [39°01’59.00” N 125°51’14” E]
The Mirim Barrage was built in 1979 primarily as a flood defence to ensure the safety of the growing Sadong-guyok industrial district. It marks the de-facto point where the Taedong river enters Pyongyang.
The Taedong River is most famous for its passage through the capital city, Pyongyang. The river is as much of a city landmark as any monument or statue and is often present in photos of the city since the majority of Pyongyang’s tourist sites are located on its banks. As the river curves southwards towards the city centre it flows around a large skinny island called Rungna-do. The island is famous for its enormous stadium, the May Day stadium, built in 1989 to host the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students. Other sites include a dolphinarium and a theme park. Continuing down the river, the famous Mansudae Grand Monument is located near the river on the western side and directly opposite on the eastern side is the monument to the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea. The next stage of the river, passing through the central districts, is perhaps the most famous. The Taedong flows between the Tower of the Juche Idea on one side and Kim Il Sung Square on the other. Huge fountains have been installed on the river at this point in order to express the beauty of Pyongyang and the increase the city’s overall grandiose atmosphere. Another island situated in the centre of the river is Yanggak-do, well-known internationally thanks to it being the site of the Yanggakkdo International Hotel. The USS Pueblo, the captured American spy ship, was originally displayed near Yangak island on the Taedong river before being moved to the Potong river to be closer to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. As with other industrial cities along the Taedong’s route, there are numerous factories situated on the banks of the river, likely to make use of the river water as coolant for machinery etc.
As the river leaves the city centre is passes the atom-shaped high-tech science and technology centre. It flows past Mangyongdae revolutionary site, the most significant such site in the country since it is the birthplace of the President Kim Il Sung. Mangyongdae marks the border of Pyongyang and the Taedong river begins it’s slow flow south-west towards the industrial cities of southern South Pyongan and eventually out into the great West Sea.
[천리마 & 대안] Chollima & Tae’an - [38°56’21.00” N 125°35’19.00” E]
The city of Chollima is the first of a series of heavily industrialised cities which lie on the banks of the Taedonggang. Officially, it is Chollima-guyok, a district of Nampo Special City. Chollima is a heavily industrialised settlement located, primarily, on the northern side of the Taedong River south-west of Pyongyang. The city’s monument to the national leadership is located amidst densely packed housing; a large main road stretches from the monument down to the river bank making it visible from the river. The city is surrounded by factories including the Chollima Steelworks, a significant industrial centre for the production of steel, which continues the tradition of metalworking in the region which was initiated by the Japanese in the first half of the 20th century. The word ‘Chollima’ refers to a mythical winged horse; in the 1950s the Chollima Movement, initiated by President Kim Il Sung, aimed to rapidly develop the national economy and since then the symbol of Chollima has become a mainstay of the national ideology.
Slightly further down the river is the city of Tae’an, another industrial centre. The city centre hosts a great monument to the leaders and the riverbank is lined with industry. One of the most well known is the Tae’an Friendship Glass Factory. From here on, numerous ships can be seen in the river moving freight – this is in great contrast to upstream where shipping is rare due to the narrow river and numerous dams in place.
[송림] Songnim – [38°44’27” N 125°36’59” E]
Songnim is yet another industrial centre along the banks of the Taedong between Nampo and Pyongyang. At this location, the Taedong serves as the provincial border dividing South Pyongan from North Hwanghae. Songnim is situated in North Hwanghae Province and is notable for its enormous Hwanghae Iron and Steel Complex located by the river. This is the second-largest steelworks in the country (the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex in Chongjin is larger). Despite the city’s proximity to the Pyongyang-Kaesong Unification Highway, the city is not actually visible to tourist groups travelling between the two cities. Due to the importance of Songnim as a Taedong river port and industrial centre, it is unlikely that it will open for foreign visits in the near future. The northern half of the city is primarily devoted to residential housing although the southern half is heavily built up with numerous factory complexes along the river. It appears that a large reservoir has been created, likely to store water for use in industry, in the middle of the industrial district creating a peninsula at the southern end of the city.
[남포] Nampo & West Sea Barrage – [38°44’03.00” N 125°24’43.00 E]
Nampo is the largest port city on the western side of the DPRK and is the mouth of the Taedong river. The city is a national centre for shipbuilding and is the primary port for imported goods destined for Pyongyang. The Nampo-Pyongyang highway allows goods to travel quickly between the port and the capital. There is even a University dedicated to marine studies located, very practically, on the river bank next to the port.
Whilst the city itself is not a major tourist attraction, the West Sea Barrage is one of the most famous sites in the country. This colossal 8km long dam, built between 1981 and 1986 was deisnged to keep seawater from mixing with the freshwater from the river, thus solving the problem of freshwater supply. The dam was also intended to irrigate surrounding land creating fertile plains for agriculture. It also serves as a rail bridge between South Pyongan and South Hwanghae.
The Taedong river flows from a little known region of the DPRK through some of the country’s most stunning scenery and overlooked countryside. The contrast between the small villages hidden amongst deep river valleys and the huge industrial cities which rely on the Taedong for their manufacturing operations is immense. The Taedong may we well known for its brief passage through the centre of the capital and the famous landmarks which surround it, but it is incredibly diverse, passing villages, towns, military stations, agricultural pastures, industrial complexes, cities and ports. Following the river gives a great overview of how diverse the country really is, even within a very small area.
North Korea Uncovered: http://www.nkeconwatch.com/north-korea-uncovered-google-earth/
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