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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
A plan to construct a major new tourist resort near North Korea’s east coast city of Wonsan appears to be in full-swing, with rumors circulating that the project could even be finished by late July.
First announced in his 2018 new year’s speech, Kim Jong Un requested North Korean citizens “join efforts” with service personnel to complete construction of the new tourist resort in the “shortest period of time”.
By all accounts, the ambitious construction project – dubbed the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area – matches the scale of other landmark national projects built during the Kim Jong Un era, including the Ryomyong and Mirae streets in Pyongyang and Masikryong ski resort.
Facilities at the new resort, which is being raised adjacent to Wonsan’s Kalma International Airport, will include hotel complexes, private villas, communal swimming pools and flumes, beach-huts, and shopping areas, a publicity poster published by the North’s DPRK Today showed in February.
“Everything including cinemas, outdoor theater, comprehensive amusement arcade and indoor swimming pool will be established,” an accompanying interview with the vice-director general of the DPRK National Tourism Administration said.
North Korea travel industry specialists, meanwhile, told NK News that the new resort will augment existing hotel capacity near the coastal city, which has long been a favorite with foreign visitors and even includes an international children’s camp.
“The Kalma Beach Area already has an existing tourism infrastructure including two large hotels, some modest beach infrastructure, natural white sand beaches and huge waves which would be amazing for surfing in the right seasons,” said Michael Spavor of the Paektu Cultural Exchange organization about the new project.
“They are building 10-15 hotels, about 20-30 restaurants and shops, as well as theaters and other tourism and entertainment infrastructure,” Spavor explained.
Another tour specialist, however, said he had heard of even more ambitious goals.
“I was told by a Korean friend that it is supposed to be a series of several 4-5 star hotels and with a huge capacity of up to 7000 people per day,” said Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours.
But while official state media is yet to publish any photos or videos illustrating construction progress at the site, satellite imagery first analyzed by Curtis Melvin of NK Econwatch shows the emergence of what appears to now be scores of temporary shelters and storage facilities for workers there.
Meanwhile, on the beach just south of the Myongsasipri resort running adjacent to an incomplete runway at the Wonsan-Kalma airport, March-dated Planet Labs satellite imagery shows signs of initial ground construction of the new tourist resort.
And although an official target completion date has yet to be announced – unlike with the recently inaugurated Ryomyong Street, originally stated to be completed in under a year – multiple sources in North Korea told NK News they’d heard the aim is to complete the new resort by July 27: the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
While that might seem a stretch given the limited progress visible in satellite imagery to date, it’s important to note the relatively low ten-floor height of the tallest buildings pictured in existing artistic renditions of the resort.
A ten-floor maximum height could facilitate rapid concrete construction in North Korea, given precedence at other much taller buildings in Pyongyang, especially with state media reports about the large-scale mobilization of workers, concrete manufacturers, timber mills, and landscape gardeners at the resort area.
“If all goes as planned I predict the “Kalma Seaside Tourism Area” will open after mid to late August or early September,” Michael Spavor told NK News about construction progress, whose Paektu Cultural Exchange organization will also be visiting the area this May, according to online literature.
But given the adjacent airport has had just one international flight since a major refurbishment was completed in 2015, just who exactly is the new Wonsan beach resort being built for?
“The construction of the seaside resort in the Wonsan-Kalma area with Kalma airport will help satisfy the demands of local and foreign tourists and provide an ideal place for stopover between different tourist destinations and Wonsan-Mt Kumgang International Tourist Zone,” a February dated Pyongyang Times article about the project said.
However, tour specialists were unsure whether or not foreigners were really a priority target.
For example, while some tour operators were in 2013 allowed to inspect hotel facilities at the northern end of the Kalma peninsula, Spavor pointed out that “the Kalma beaches and tourism facilities have not been open to foreign tourists in the past…”
But Cockerell, who had heard the new resort is designed to accommodate up to 7000 visitors, explained the large capacity “means that it is not designed (primarily) for international visitors and is more aimed at domestic travelers: a market that has been increasing in the last few years.”
“As Kalma is a known beauty spot throughout the country this would presumably then be pitched to groups and visitors traveling inside the country, and to foreign guests too,” he said.
Dean Oulette, Director of International Affairs at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, agreed that project-backers could, in-part, be for a domestic market.
“You also have to remember that infrastructure developments in tourism are not just for international tourists’ use, especially in a country like North Korea, which claims a socialist development strategy,” he said.
“Relatively recently, North Korea has started to develop and advertise tourism domestically: you don’t do that unless you know there is a market, demand, and people with enough coin in their pockets to spend.”
Being built adjacent to an airport, however, would also make the resort a suitable place for foreign visitors to consider in the future.
And Oulette said that the goal may be, longer-term, to attract those from landlocked northeastern China, especially if high-quality lodgings are built, attractive leisure activities offered, and direct international flights eventually begin.
“In the future, the South Korean market could be tapped, but that is a long-term possibility,” he added.
“Pyongyang’s relations with Seoul require considerable improvement before South Korean tourists will be (or should be) traveling to North Korea again.”
But he said that beyond the political situation, North Korea would also need to make assurances to guarantee “we do not have a repeat of the July 2008 tourist shooting at Mt. Kumgang” – when the unexpected death of a South Korean visitor led to Seoul permanently suspending all tourist trips to the North.
Some, however, Spavor thinks broader détente with the U.S. could one day facilitate trips from even further afield.
“Eventually, over time if a peace treaty is signed between North Korea and the United States, and some of the international sanctions on North Korea are reduced or dropped, who knows, maybe the Kalma Airport will be receiving direct international flights from Tokyo, Seoul, and just maybe even Seattle and LA?”
But as Rowan Beard, a tour guide with the China-based Young Pioneer Tours said, “Kalma Airport has been completed for almost two years already without it being a particularly busy airport.”
This means that despite apparently significant investment in the airport’s modernization, both international and domestic flights have been exceptionally light.
In addition, the new easterly runway built adjacent to the old one appears to be incomplete, perhaps adding to why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has never paid an official visit to the passenger terminal in state media records.
But the renovations and new resort may all be signs of intent, Beard said, giving “early indications that the government wants to make Wonsan the new hot place or foreign and local tourists.
“I hope this project goes ahead and is completed to help boost the aging facilities that are currently available for beachgoers,” he added.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: DPRK Today