The original route of the Koryo Saram, the Korean people who migrated to the Russian Far East over 155 years ago from the province of Hamgyong in the very north of then-unified Korea, now stretches from the modern states of North Korea into the Russian Federation.
Both the symbolic and de facto border separating the Choson dynasty-run Korea from the neighboring Qing dynasty-dominated China and the Russian Empire back then was (and still is) the Tumen river or Tumangang in Korean.
Leaving Tumangang behind and carrying out this historical one-way crossing – never to return back again – became the physical and philosophical countdown for Koryo Saram as a diaspora and the cornerstone of their self-identification as overseas Koreans based in the former Soviet Union and originating from the Far Eastern Russia.
Nonetheless, this subconscious longing for Korea runs through the genes of the Koryo Saram and manifests in an acute curiosity toward the present-day DPRK, where their ancestors originally came from. As a researcher of the overseas Korean diasporas and the descendant of the Koryo Saram myself, this was a personal journey.
This particular voyage was a first for foreign tourists: boarding a regular North Korean passenger train all the way from Pyongyang to Vladivostok, crossing the present-day DPRK-Russia border over the Tumen river in the actual North Korean town of Tumangang and arriving at Khasan.
We traveled the DPRK for a week, first from west to east – from Pyongyang to Hamhung – and then all the way up north along the coastline and to the very edge of the East Korea Bay – past the towns and fishing villages of South and North Hamgyong – to Kimchaek and Chongjin as well as the free economic area of Rason located on the present-day tri-border over the Tumen river.
In the course of this journey, I tried to follow the lives of ordinary people – a task almost impossible for a “regular” tourist as any kind of official tourism in the DPRK is very strictly organized and controlled, with local guides accompanying us at all destinations, in each city and even on the road. Foreigners can rarely cross path with locals, “naturally” split from them by the parallel networks of communication and currency exchange.
At the same time and paradoxically, maybe, the train also became a sort of window into the momentous reality. This is what I ultimately tried to gather and preserve – a photo-collection of people, memories, and moments on the road in North Korea on my way to repeat the historical crossing of Tumangang.
Victoria Kim is a multimedia journalist and researcher from Uzbekistan. She previously wrote about the Soviet deportation of Koreans to Uzbekistan (available in parts one, two, three) and about General Nam Il, who signed the armistice on behalf of North Korea in 1950.