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View more articles by Hamish Macdonald
Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
North Korean authorities have announced an expansive development project for the east coast city of Wonsan that will include the construction of an underwater hotel, a Pyongyang Times article said last Tuesday.
The ambitious plan, which focuses on the construction and development of infrastructure and buildings primarily related to the leisure sector, will see Wonsan become a “tourist city,” the Pyongyang Times said.
“Underwater hotel, flower park, international meeting hall, exhibition and exposition hall, stadium and development areas will be built on the Kalma Peninsula,” the article said, adding that “towers and other modern-style buildings” would be constructed in “large numbers” in downtown area.
Although no details about the underwater hotel were revealed, Andrea Lee of the New Jersey-based North Korea tour company Uri Tours confirmed the existence of plans to NK News in an email last week.
“We have confirmed with our local partners in Pyongyang that there are indeed plans to build an underwater hotel in Wonsan,” Lee said, adding that “local authorities are now in discussions on how to build the hotel”.
BEST USE OF RESOURCES
The emergence of the ambitious Wonsan development plan, reportedly signed-off on in November 2013, comes just two months after World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director Ertharin Cousin told reporters in Seoul that the viability of North Korea programs was being threatened due to a “critical” lack of funding.
With significant investment in leisure and tourist facilities becoming a hallmark of Kim Jong Un’s leadership, North Korea watchers were therefore quick to criticize the latest plans.
“The last thing the hungry people of North Korea need is an underwater hotel that is, at best, years from seeing its first guest,” a former U.S. Army Judge Advocate and author of the One Free Korea blog Joshua Stanton told NK News by email.
“North Korea is not a poor country, and hunger there is the direct consequence of Kim Jong Un’s choices,” said Stanton, adding that he was unsure if North Korea was serious about the project or if it would in fact be directly funded by Pyongyang.
“Projects like this one may help explain why foreign donors are giving up, given that Kim Jong Un could easily fund the WFP’s entire $200 million, two-year feeding program out-of-pocket,” Stanton explained.
Leonid Petrov, a researcher at the Australian National University (ANU), mocked the contradictions between increased investment in the DPRK tourism industry at a time when North Korea has been simultaneously arresting greater numbers of foreign visitors than ever before.
“Underwater hotels are the most suitable form of tourist accommodation for North Korea,” said Petrov.
“As a foreign tourist you won’t be able to escape. You will not be able to see anything that happens outside of your hotel room or sneak a photo from your window.
“Keeping foreign guests in aquariums is (therefore) a perfect Orwellian solution for isolating them from the locals while maximizing cash revenue,” Petrov said.
OUT OF THEIR DEPTH?
The construction of underwater hotels is a relatively new development in the global hotel industry, with only a few examples of small-scale underwater facilities in existence worldwide.
But while designs for large underwater hotel projects have been publicized in developed countries like the UAE and Maldives, prohibitive construction costs have often meant that elaborate plans were mothballed, with Dubai’s Hydropolis Hotel – estimated to cost $300 million – being one such example.
And while the DPRK’s state travel agency, the Korea International Travel Company (KITC), would not provide NK News with details on either the funding and scale of the underwater hotel, precedence shows that even small scale examples can be hugely expensive to construct.
The Ithaa restaurant in the Maldives, for example, is less than 10 square meters in size and cost $5 million to build, with the structure built in Singapore for quality assurance purposes, before being shipped to the Maldives.
Given the costly nature of underwater hotel projects, it remains to be seen how North Korea will finance construction of the hotel at Wonsan – though the use of tens of thousands of soldiers to build the recently completed Masikryong ski resort might provide one template.
WIDER WONSAN PLANS
Wonsan has historically been seen as a city geared towards recreation and the details of the Wonsan area development plan is further evidence of this push to transform the area.
“Wonsan is the poster child for North Korea’s initiative to focus more on development outside of Pyongyang,” said Geoffrey K. See, Managing Director of the Singaporean NGO Choson Exchange.
“If you look at the new zones that have cropped up since the announcement of the zone plan, only Wonsan and Kangwon have received significant high-level attention and national resources.
“Aside from its historical role as a recreational town, Wonsan and the surrounding area were chosen because of the desire to diversify sources of investment and income,” See said.
“Its location, far away from the Chinese border, facing South Korea and Japan, means that it is well-positioned geographically to pull in investment and tourist dollars from its two neighbors.”
Despite the fact that tourists from Wonsan’s two closest neighbors – Japan and South Korea – are unable to currently visit the country, North Korea has already made plans to expand infrastructure in the area to facilitate a hoped influx of investors and tourists.
In 2013 NK News obtained architectural designs from Hong Kong based firm PLT, revealing plans to build a $200 million airport in Wonsan to serve as a major transportation hub for area and the wider Special Tourism Zone.
Despite the $200 million investment from PLT, construction for the Wonsan International Airport was stalled in July 2013 due to “political instability” and has yet to restart.
But whether the underwater hotel or other elements of the expansive Wonsan development plan will materialize remains to be seen.
“As is often the case in North Korea, they have huge plans that are dependent on a great deal of investment. I’m sure Wonsan will see some of these things pop up, as it seems to be a bit a of a ‘national focus’ to invest in the town,” Andray Abrahamian, executive director at Choson Exchange told NK News.
Main picture: Wonsan jetty, Eric Lafforgue