Thick Black Lines: On Chongjin, 1947

By | February 02, 2012 | No Comments

Celebrations in North Hamgyong Province, August 15, 1946

Thick Black Lines: On Chongjin, 1947

by Adam Cathcart and Charles Kraus

On Data |  The notion of unverified rumors from North Korea is anything but new.  Long before the World Wide Web, China Mobile cell phone penetration into North Pyong’an province, or the very formation of the Daily NK, the Central Intelligence Agency was actively soliciting and aggregating some very interesting, often fascinating, reports from within North Korea.

Recently obtained as part of our ongoing project on the North Korean-Chinese borderlands in the early Cold War, the CIA materials discussed here are often full of redactions, thick black lines that keep us from knowing more about the sourcing.  Some reports are clearly exaggeration, while others are absolutely in-depth looks at individual personalities and administrative linkages that omit practically nothing but, for instance, the type of cufflinks a certain associate of Kim Ku favored.   Try as we might to corroborate the sources via cross-referencing with Chinese sources and captured North Korean documents (of which there are literally tons), we cannot always verify or deny the accounts.

Some modicum of hope, however, can be recovered when one approaches the sources armed with a general sense of “cosilience,” a theory explained further by the Korean-Chinese translator Joe Litt in his discussion of defector stories from Chongjin in 2012:

Individual data points are not to be trusted, but the sum-totality of data points can help point us in the right direction.

A handful of CIA intelligence reports, cited below, provide a few points of continuity and difference between Chongjin, the political, industrial, and shipping epicenter of North Hamgyong province (such as it is) in the year 1947 and today, when, although rapidly being overshadowed by Rason, Chongjin remains a vital outpost of observation of the DPRK’s regional dynamics, receptivity to the foreign, and provincial policy.

Food Problems |  Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy does a masterful job in describing the breakdown of the public distribution system in Chongjin in the mid-1990s.  However, one should not assume that all was well in the preceding period.  North Koreans today are indeed nostalgic for the Kim Il Sung era, but they are more specifically nostalgic for, roughly speaking, the decade from about 1958-1967.  (After all, as a Chinese magazine reported not too long ago, it is Kim Jong Un’s goal to raise North Korea’s living standard today to that of the DPRK in the early 1960s.)  The point here is that people in Chongjin have known hunger before, and they have resisted the state.

North Hamgyong Province, One Year Removed from Liberation

One report on food conditions in 1947 described an “acute shortage of such staple foods as rice and cornmeal.”  Fish were plentiful, and the main staple was bean cake, but grain was very hard to come by.  “Anyone having cornmeal to eat,” the report asserted, “is regarded as being ‘upper class.'”  Class divisions were indeed emerging in inequalities in food distribution: the poor in the city “have skinned the bark off pine trees in the Chongjin area and have used it for food.”  Such individuals might have been very much in mind when ROK and UN propagandists rained down leaflets on the North, depicting a Rabelasian Kim Il Sung standing over the bones of the emaciated peasantry.

Prior to the Korean War, American intelligence noted that there was ample “bitter[ness] against the government’s taxation policy and the requirement that they sell much of their farm produce to the government at low, fixed prices.”  As the report described of the local farmers, “they do not approve of the present Communist government in North Korea but are making no open protest against it.”  The same report, however, noted the Workers’ Party success in turning the previously reluctant group of students — particularly those between ages 15 and 21 — into enthusiastic apostles of revolution.

Militarization of the City in the Pre-Songun Era |  Chongjin’s population stood at about 300,000 before the Korean War.  The war sliced that number by a full third, both by deaths in bombings and atrocities.  The city was occupied by ROK troops in late October 1950, and, by dint of what was probably by turns enthusiastic and violent collaboration with the anti-communist forces, tens of thousands of Koreans were borne away on that pell-mell southern exodus with US/UN troops in December 1950.

A Soviet Soldier/Administrator in North Hamgyong Province, August 1946

Well before the Korean War, Chongjin was a hub for foreign troops.  Soviet soldiers transferring between Pyongyang and Rason often stopped in Chongjin.  One train, moving in the direction south to Pyongyang, was said to carry “3000 rifles, 8000 cases of ammunition, 500 Soviet soldiers and 300 Korean soldiers.”  Other Soviet troops would arrive via truck in the city (leading to estimates of 5000 Soviet Army forces in the city), and a reported 500 Soviet Air Force personnel were living in Chongjin, giving “preliminary instruction” to KPA members who had no aircraft of their own.  Anti-aircraft guns dotted the mountaintops.  While food was scarce, there was no shortage of military uniforms and soldiers. Chongjin might very well have been hungry, but it was secure.


“Air Information: Chongjin (Seishin) Area,” September 26, 1947, CREST Document No. CIA-DRP82-00457R000900550012-3.

“Economic Information: Food Conditions and Commodity Prices in Chongjin,” September 26, 1947, CREST Document No. CIA-DRP82-00457R000900560002-3.

“Political Information: Public Opinion and Discontent in North Korea,” September 1947, CREST Document No. CIA-DRP82-00457R000900550011-4.

“Military Information: Soviet Troop and Material Movements in North Korea,” September 29, 1947, CREST Document No. CIA-DRP82-00457R000900560001-4.

All documents obtained by Charles Kraus for from the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD. All photographs were obtained by Charles Kraus for from National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 242 (“Captured Enemy Documents”), Shipping Advice 2005, Item 7/5.

Celebrations in North Hamgyong Province, August 15, 1946

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