It is one of the most curious spots in South Korea: the former holiday home of Kim Il-sung, guerilla maestro and “eternal president” of North Korea.
Located in northeast Gangwon Province, where the Winter Olympiad began on February 9, it sits just 15km south of the DMZ. On a low cliff surrounded by pine forest, its tall windows gaze eastward across the sea. And from its flat, crenelated roof, the view in the opposite direction is equally impressive: the eye wanders across a tree-lined lagoon then scans up into forested mountains.
In short, this is precisely the kind of uber-villa any self-respecting dictator would wish to own.
It is certainly imposing – and defensible – enough to satisfy even the vainest and most paranoid despot. Originally built by German missionaries in the 1930s, its size, location, rooftop battlements and outlook grant it a fortress-like aspect. It is known as “Hwajinpo Castle” in South Korea.
According to Seoul-based Dutch-Australian amateur historian Jacco Zwetsloot, who collects and studies North Korean propaganda, the home was first used as a dacha by Russian troops who liberated Manchurian and northern Korea in 1945. It was then taken over by Kim Il-sung.
Kim was an anti-Japanese guerrilla leader who operated in the Manchurian wilds and subsequently served in the Soviet Red Army in the Far East during World War II, before being chosen by Stalin to head the nascent North Korean state in 1948. His son, Kim Jong-il, became head of state, in the first hereditary transfer of power in a communist state, following Kim Sr’s death in 1994.
A photograph of the infant dictator – father of the current third-generation North Korean, leader Kim Jong-un – sitting on the steps outside the house, with – apparently – a Russian playmate, is fixed to those same steps today.
Inside the villa, on the first floor, are information displays on Kim Il-sung. Upstairs, there is a re-creation of Kim’s bedroom – but anyone anticipating an extravagant boudoir will be disappointed; the room is surprisingly simple. It features a military-style tunic for Kim, a traditional Korean dress for his missus, a radio sitting by the fireplace, Korean vases, a low bed and – this is a modern museum, after all – several suitably totalitarian “Do Not Touch” signs.
Questions hang over how authentic the building is. It certainly looks in far better physical condition than any such historical structure has any right to be, and a modern annex at the rear looks distinctly post-Kim. “Curiously, the original building was destroyed in decades past, and what we have now is a replica,” says Zwetsloot. “It’s unclear to me how true to the original this structure is, but reproductions as stand-ins for historical objects are not uncommon in Korea.”
Tourists can also visit the surprisingly close – and significantly more modest – villa of South Korea’s first president, Rhee Syngman. While Rhee and Kim obviously shared an appreciation for the aesthetics of Goseong Country – a lovely chunk of Gangwon, in the province’s northeast corner – they were mortal enemies and never met. Had they encountered each other, it is likely that only one would have walked away (if at all) with a full set of teeth.
So why does the villa of a North Korean dictator stand on free South Korean soil?
During the 1950-53 Korean war, combat surged up and down the peninsula. When the armistice came into effect and fighting halted at midnight on 27 July, 1953, the area around the house was held by South Korean troops. Gangwon province was subject to North Korean commando incursions in the late 1960s – and was the site of the beaching of a North Korean reconnaissance submarine in 1996 – but Kim’s handsome crib has remained firmly in southern hands since the end of the war.
It has been operated as a tourist site since 1999. It is impossible to know what corner of heaven or hell the ex-guerilla now inhabits, but to know that his wondrous seaside villa is now being tramped through by hordes of common tourists – for profit – is surely enough to make any old communist roll in his grave.
Hwajinpo Castle is at 280, Hwajinpo-gil, Goseong-gun, Gangwon-do. Tel: +82-33-682-0500