In the seaside city of Wonsan, North Korean families cook up barbecues on the beach, go fishing, and eat royal jelly flavour ice cream in the summer breeze. For their leader Kim Jong Un, the resort is a summer retreat, a future temple to tourism, and a good place to test missiles.
He is rebuilding the city of 360,000 people and wants to turn it into a billion-dollar tourist hotspot. At the same time, he has launched nearly 40 missiles from the area, as part of his accelerated tests of North Korea’s nuclear deterrent.
“It may sound crazy to outsiders to fire missiles from a place he wants to develop economically, but that’s how Kim Jong Un runs his country,” said Lim Eul-chul, an expert on the North Korean economy at Kyungnam University in South Korea.
This combination of tourism and nuclear weapons is emblematic of Kim Jong Un’s strategy for survival, say researchers and people familiar with the project.
North Korea’s development plans for Wonsan have mushroomed since they were first announced in 2014. Examined here in detail for the first time, they run across 160 pages in nearly 30 brochures produced by the Wonsan Zone Development Corporation in Korean, Chinese, Russian and English in 2015 and 2016. Tourism is one of a shrinking range of North Korean cash sources not targeted by United Nations sanctions, and the brochures advertise to foreign investors some $1.5 billion worth of potential ventures in the Wonsan Special Tourist Zone, an area covering more than 400 square km (150 square miles). Kim has already constructed a ski resort and a new airport there.
According to one brochure, the Zone includes approximately 140 historical relics, 10 sand beaches, 680 tourist attractions, four mineral springs, several bathing resorts and natural lakes and “more than 3.3 million tons of mud with therapeutic properties for neuralgia and colitis.”
The projects that Kim is inviting investors to help build include a $7.3 million department store, a $197 million city centre development, and a $123 million golf course (including a $62.5 million fee to lease the land).
Earlier this year Kim sent 16 of his officials to Spain to get ideas for Wonsan. They visited Marina d’Or, one of the Mediterranean country’s biggest holiday complexes, and the Terra Mitica (Mythical Land) theme park in Benidorm. Terra Mitica caters to fans “of extreme sensations,” according to its website.
“They saw such places with their own eyes and filmed some of them,” said a spokesman at the North Korean embassy in Madrid. Both parks confirmed the visits; a spokeswoman for Terra Mitica said the North Koreans were impressed by its themes including the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome.
No major foreign partner has said they will back Kim’s Wonsan projects. The new airport, completed in 2015, has yet to open to international flights. America recently banned its citizens from visiting North Korea. International sanctions now ban all joint ventures with the state.
“He has strong political reasons to develop Wonsan.”