Examining Kim’s Approach to Construction: Project Wonsan

Kim Jong Un’s site visit patterns and practices provide some insights into what his priorities are and how those might shift according to the times.
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38 North

This article was originally published in 38 North.

Kim Jong Un has exhibited an agility in his leadership, separate from that of his predecessors. Kim has shown the ability to shift overall state policy direction from his father’s songun policy of military first, to his own byungjin policy of simultaneous economic and nuclear development, to a more economy-focused policy in recent years. Throughout his tenure, he has also shown a preference for being hands-on for high priority projects whether overseeing multiple missile tests or guiding the course of major construction projects to ensure his goals are accomplished.[1]

The development of the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourism Area (the Wonsan Beach Resort) reflects this emerging pattern of Kim’s leadership. While the Wonsan-Mt. Kumgang International Tourism Zone was formalized in 2014, Kim did not push the construction of the coastal area until 2018, when prospects for better external relations, possible sanctions easing and a large influx of tourism were high.

Once the coastal area became a high priority, Kim pushed the construction of this project at a remarkable pace. Making four site visits within a year, Kim’s heavy-handed approach led to multiple course changes along the way, showing a preference for style over speed, wanting the job done right, not just quickly.

However, when changes in the external environment made large-scale tourism unlikely in the near term, Kim’s priorities once again shifted, leaving the Wonsan Beach Resort a longer-term goal and diverting resources to projects that better serve the country’s needs at a time of hardship.

Figure 1. Overview of the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourism Area.

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The Wonsan-Mt. Kumgang International Tourist Zone is a large-scale tourist zone located along the southeastern coast of North Korea. It was officially announced in June 2014, although plans had been in place to develop this zone long before that time. It was intended to be the country’s top destination for both domestic and foreign vacationers, complete with world-class resort amenities and entertainment. Rich in natural attractions, the area includes miles of beaches, snowy mountains and breathtaking waterfalls, providing would-be tourists with year-round enjoyment. Moreover, its location was ideal with two hours of flying time from major cities in China, Russia and Japan and situated at a railway junction with service to Dandong, China via Pyongyang, and to Khasan, Russia via Hamhung and Chongjin.[2]

Spanning over 400 square kilometers, the zone consists of six districts: Wonsan, Masikryong Ski Resort, Ullim Falls, Sogwang Temple, Thongchon, and Mt. Kumgang.[3] The coastal area beach resort was meant to be the centerpiece, with plans for it to accommodate up to 100,000 guests at a time, replete with sports and leisure amenities and an international conference center.

Despite Kim Jong Un’s vision in 2013 and 2014 to open numerous special economic zones around the country, few have come to fruition. Plans for the Wonsan-Mt. Kumgang International Tourism Zone have not only survived, but seem to have grown in importance over the years, having been mentioned in four of Kim Jong Un’s New Year Addresses since 2015.

Read the full analysis in 38 North.

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