In Kim Jong Un’s summer retreat fun meets guns North Korea’s leader uses a prime seaside resort for military tests

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GUIDANCE: Kim Jong Un supervises a multiple-rocket launching drill by women’s sub-units of the Korean People’s Army Unit 851. REUTERS/KCNA

By Reuters

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.”

Kim Young-Hui, former Wonsan resident, now at Korea Development Bank, Seoul

Even so, the plan is strategically vital for Kim, say former North Korean diplomats. When he came to power in 2011, he inherited a society officially run by the military but whose people survived largely on black market dealings. On paper, North Korea is a state-run economy; but in fact, seven in 10 North Koreans depend on private trade to live, according to Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador in London,  who staged a high-profile defection with his family in 2016.

Kim is perceived by outsiders as all powerful, but North Korea’s free marketeers make him more vulnerable than he seems, Thae told Reuters. The leader is looking for a way to harness both military and market forces to survive.

Nuclear weapons are one part of his answer – because Kim hopes they will cost less to maintain than North Korea’s conventional heavy weapons.

Projects like Wonsan are the other part. He wants to cut the share of funding he gives to the military and allocate more money to the civilian economy.

“Kim Jong Un knows that he can only control society and guarantee his long leadership if his role and influence in the economy is increased,” said Thae.


North Korea wants to attract more than 1 million tourists every year in the near term and around 5 million to 10 million tourists “in the foreseeable future,” the Wonsan brochures say. The Wonsan Zone Development Corporation, the North Korean state body which oversees the project, did not respond to requests for comment.

There are no up-to-date statistics on current visitors to North Korea. China said more than 237,000 Chinese visited in 2012 but it stopped publishing the statistics in 2013. For comparison, 8 million Chinese visited South Korea in 2016.

The Korea Maritime Institute, a think-tank in the South, estimates that tourism generates about $44 million in annual revenue for North Korea – about 0.8 percent of the country’s GDP. About 80 percent of all North Korea’s foreign tourists are Chinese, it says. Westerners and Russians make up the rest.

The Wonsan brochures are welcoming. “Officials and residents of this zone have a good understanding of tourism and are friendly towards tourists,” one says.

The brochures also disclose some unusual details about vacation habits in the totalitarian state.

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