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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korea’s Samjiyon County construction project has been revealed to include 400+ new buildings, close inspection of recently-released official images shows.
Comparison of historical satellite imagery with a project map released by North Korean state media on Tuesday reveals over 450 newly-planned buildings, most of which have not yet been constructed.
Most of the work already underway falls along the largest main roads in the town, which has seen progress in the past few months, while analysis shows hundreds of buildings were either demolished last fall and spring or are slated to be demolished.
Along with the east coast Wonsan-Kalma beach resort project, the Samjiyon County construction project is one of the country’s largest and most highly-promoted – with both being mentioned during Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Year’s Address.
The town also lies just over ten miles from the Sino-DPRK border – suggesting the project, once completed, could be a major pull for Chinese tourists.
A clear map of the entire construction plan of Samjiyon was released through Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) as part of extended coverage of Kim Jong Un’s “on-the-spot guidance” of the area over the weekend.
Tuesday’s edition of ruling party organ the Rodong Sinmun also dedicated five pages of an extended eight-page edition to Kim’s tours of a nearby farm, a potato processing factory, and a visit with local party officials in addition to the Samjiyon construction site.
A large portion of the new buildings will be similar to existing lodgings, with foundations roughly the size of tennis courts – but there are still over 100 larger structures included in the plans.
As the project spans the entire ten square-kilometer town of Samjiyon, NK News has also found that the plans will incorporate over 350 existing buildings, mostly comprised of these two-to three-story lodgings, but also larger industrial and recreational facilities.
Images of Kim Jong Un inspecting the area show construction underway on three-story buildings with steep sloped roofs, similar in appearance to the existing buildings.
The KCNA article quoted Kim as saying during his inspection that the construction should be “divided into the areas of education, dwelling houses, modern streets, industry, sports and cultural education, commercial service and tourism, in accordance with the ratified master plan.”
Some of the above categories are shown on a large board at the construction site, each with various artistic renderings of the finished buildings below.
The board includes examples of twelve large museums and other educational buildings; seventeen cultural, recreational, and other “public” buildings; various “dwelling” and other “service” buildings up to six stories tall; and almost three dozen hotels, gazebos, and other “tourist” facilities.
It is unclear which of these specifically will be newly built or renovated, or if some of them are among the over 300 buildings strewn among the new construction that will be incorporated into the full plan.
Past reports on the progress of construction did, however, allude to the renovation of at least one major building in the Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism Study Hall.
North Korean authorities maintain that Samjiyon County is a sacred site, where founding leader Kim Il Sung conducted “revolutionary anti-Japanese activities” and where Kim Jong Il was born.
Evidence suggests, however, that Kim Jong Il was actually born in the far east of Russia near Khabarovsk.
After Kim Jong Un visited the site in December 2016, state media reported the following February that construction to turn Samjiyon “into a model county of the country has been pushed forward dynamically.”
An update in September 2017 again said progress was “apace,” and that one army brigade was building “three-storied dwelling houses for nearly 100 apartments.”
Kim Jong Un then visited again in December last year, providing hints that many of the small buildings seen in the newly-released map of the area would be “dwelling houses” for permanent residence.
He was quoted on the guidance tour at the time saying that “the dwelling houses have been built well to be clean and cosy to suit the regional features” adding that he hoped their “owners” would like them.
But details of the full scope of the plans were not revealed until this most recent site inspection – Kim Jong Un’s fourth official visit to Samjiyon County since assuming power.
State media has promoted the participation of several army units in construction, and workers are often seen adorning military uniforms in official photos, including in the most recent set.
A large number of workers have also relocated to the construction area, where vast areas of land on otherwise unmarked parts of the newly-released plan map appear covered in small structures – likely temporary housing.
While inspecting the site in December 2017, Kim Jong Un was quoted as saying he was “very deeply impressed to personally see the builders devoting their burning loyalty to the construction of the county after leaving their dear houses and families” to work on the project.
North Korea has been accused of using child and forced labor for such large-scale construction projects in the past, and images released by KCNA this week appear to show very young men in military uniforms working next to Kim Jong Un.
North Korea is one of only seven UN member states not to join the International Labor Organization (ILO), which monitors compliance in labor standards.
The country is, however, a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, whose governing committee at the UN called on North Korea in September last year to end the use of children in construction projects.
A target completion date of the Samjiyon County project has yet to be released.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA