Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 24 December 2020


Kim Jong Un forced to put new nuclear parade facilities on ice

 Kim Jong Un
The Wonsan holiday centre is one of a series of priorities for Kim Jong Un, right, that appear to be falling far behind schedule © KCNA via Reuters

Dennis Rodman once likened partying at Wonsan to the Mediterranean island of Ibiza. But Kim Jong Un’s plans of opening a world-class tourism complex along the white sand beaches of North Korea’s eastern coastline have been hit by severe delays.

The Wonsan beach resort is one of a series of vanity projects, touted as priorities for Mr Kim, which appear to be falling months — if not years — behind schedule, new satellite imagery suggests.

The delays are the latest indications of the financial crisis unfolding in the secretive state, where the economy has been buffeted by sanctions, pandemic-linked border closures and damage from extreme flooding and typhoons this year.

Rapid construction previously observed at Wonsan, as well as a new hospital in Pyongyang and facilities at a training ground for the regime’s theatrical nuclear weapons parades continue to “lose steam”, according to analysis of images published on Wednesday by 38 North, a programme run by the Stimson Center, a US think-tank.

Martyn Williams and Peter Makowsky, 38 North analysts, noted that the tourism and hospital projects had also faded from domestic propaganda efforts.

They are really going through an emergency

Andrei Lankov, Kookmin University

“Despite visiting the [Wonsan] resort four times in 2018 and 2019, Kim Jong Un has not been back on-site since April 2019, when he pushed the deadline for completion to April 2020,” the analysts said. “That deadline has since passed, with no indications of a revised timeline for completion.”

Similarly, neither Mr Kim nor state media have mentioned a revised completion date for the capital’s general hospital. Critics doubt the “prestige project” will offer much direct benefit to the millions of ordinary, impoverished North Koreans.

“The interior is unlikely close to completion given the hurried construction timeline, the reports of difficulties sourcing medical supplies and equipment and the lack of North Korean state media coverage showing interior views,” Mr Williams and Mr Makowsky said.

Focus, the analysts believed, had over recent months shifted to efforts such as rebuilding around Komdok, a typhoon-damaged lead and zinc mining area viewed as increasingly important to the North Korean economy.

“North Korea has built hundreds of homes and apartment buildings in the span of a few months to rehouse those left homeless. This work has surely diverted construction machinery and personnel from other projects,” the analysts said.

The delays coincide with one of the toughest periods the young dictator has faced since taking power in 2011.

Pyongyang has not publicly confirmed any coronavirus cases after a swift crackdown on external and domestic travel in January, though international experts are sceptical of the claims.

But the border controls, which reportedly include shoot-to-kill orders against violators, have wiped out about 80 per cent of normal trade with China this year, according to forecasts.

“They are really going through an emergency,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korean expert at Kookmin University in Seoul.

The US, however, has disputed the extent of the trade decline, alleging that widespread Chinese sanctions-busting support to the Kim regime has endured.

Alex Wong, deputy assistant secretary of state, said that on 555 occasions over the past year, the US observed ships carrying UN-prohibited coal or other sanctioned goods from North Korea to China.

“On none of these occasions did the Chinese authorities act to stop these illicit imports,” Mr Wong said last month. “Not once.”

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