‘A surreal sight’: North Korean island survives past 65 years

As president threatens closure of joint industrial zone, sea layer spins large iron hull in the ocean

A rusting iron hull makes a bizarre colony off the coast of North Korea, drawing curious tourists and posing the intriguing question: can it be rescued?

On a bright sunny day in August, three tourists from Malaysia brought their boat out to pick a spot. The North Korean coast guard outriders had sailed by on larger vessels along the shallows, but none had attempted to rescue their local guest.

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“We thought about going in and carrying her out, but we knew she would sink with us,” said Aniyah. “After a while we realised we couldn’t stay. We decided to stay on and take her out and sail her out to sea.”

Ahya, 21, and his fellow traveller, Mahzha Mahadzha, 22, did not believe when they heard that North Korea’s “floating hotel”, an iron ore smelter that has also featured in Hollywood films, would not be moved after more than 50 years of operation in the sea.

They readied their boat and life raft. When they arrived at the mouth of the Yenisei river, it was more than six hours after they had set off.

“We came close to the seabed. It was strong to withstand the waves,” said Mahzha. “So we went closer and closer and closer.”

Marilyn and Linda Francis, resident North Korean human rights defenders, saw the sunset as they watched the stranded ship, which they said had grown inside the ocean to half its original size.

“It was definitely funny to watch,” said Marilyn Francis. “It was all very surreal. I thought that was pretty historic.”

It was evident the passage had been manipulated. On dry land, access to the island is tightly controlled and the island smelter is too rich a source of income for the North Korean authorities to simply shut it down.

As the three human rights activists put the finishing touches to the boat and life raft, warning the tourists that it was unsafe, they discovered a sign for a site built in 1955 as a planned agricultural community.

While a tourist later said the island had disappeared under thick forests, someone else on the same boat said it had been destroyed by settlers in 1958 and many of the people who lived there had not been found.

To the uninitiated, the eerie tower and other structures may resemble a rustic signpost, but to locals, the grey hulk is a reminder of how the North Korean government resettled hundreds of thousands of workers before the Cultural Revolution of the late 1970s.

When the island closed in 1960, the North Korean workers were dispatched inland, with around 70% being re-located to the island of Masikryong, where they built the facilities for the shipyard.

The surviving 80% were moved to the river island and the smelter. These would be developed and used to produce the next generation of cement and cement mixing equipment, something akin to globalisation for a country that had not opened up its economy in decades.

The scrap iron stack is a vast structure that, though it is a gloomy reminder of the failed plans of the past, is worth a visit.

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