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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Updated at 16:30 KST to include new details from an afternoon KCTV report on the visit.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week made his sixth visit to the Yangdok Hot Spring Resort, the party-run Rodong Sinmun and Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Friday, where he appeared to express concerns over its scheduled December opening.
While the report said the resort “nears completion,” Kim pointed to “some shortcomings in the preparation for the operation and service of the resort.”
The North Korean leader “carefully indicated the ways for correcting shortcomings” in his latest visit, it added.
His most recent prior visit was just three weeks ago, where he “expressed his great satisfaction over the fact that the resort is being successfully completed” and praised its design as “perfect,” with state media carrying dozens of photos of the resort.
Friday’s report, on the other hand, carried only a single photo of Kim Jong Un and was more succinctly focused on what the North Korean leader said regarding what needs to be improved prior to opening, though Korean Central Television (KCTV) coverage in the afternoon Friday provided dozens of new photos.
Originally scheduled to be completed by October this year, Kim in his fourth visit to the site in August announced the opening would be pushed back until sometime in December, without specifying a date.
In his latest visit, he was said to have “stressed the need for the construction headquarters of the resort to conclude the project without fail by the date of completion set by the Party” – omitting mention of December, as was also the case in his fifth visit in late October.
It added, however, that “the scheduled day of the resort completion is now close at hand.”
The Rodong report also quoted Kim as saying organizers should “more meticulously organize the finishing work to ensure the inauguration ceremony.”
As a resort boasting primarily of hot springs and skiing facilities, it is likely that North Korea is pushing hard for it to open early this winter in order to recoup as much investment costs as possible from tourists in the coming season.
But in a sign of possible new contingency plans for spring and summer uses for the resort as well, Kim Jong Un also announced more new features of Yangdok in the report this week.
Kim “called for completing the horse-riding park under construction in the resort at an early date … and for building a golf course in the area in the future.”
As for what the North Korean leader believes is currently lacking, Kim reportedly “underscored the need to do specially well the disinfection and management of over hundreds of tubs and sanitation appliances in the resort including those in indoor and outdoor spas and hot spring water parks in hotel.”
This work is “required by the regulation,” Kim added.
In coverage of Kim’s last visit a few weeks ago, images showed that landscaping was advancing and that most buildings appeared nearly complete, but that interior work was still likely falling behind as windows and balcony doors had still largely yet to be installed across dozens of hotels and guesthouses.
But in photographs on KCTV Friday, many buildings visible in the background appeared to have windows installed, while great attention was paid to showing off interior finishing as Kim toured the facilities.
Medium-resolution satellite imagery from this week provided by Planet Labs shows, however, that temporary structures for workers are still standing in large numbers across the construction site, indicating work has not yet wrapped up.
Chairlift equipment at the ski hill had also been installed, images from October showed, and in the intervening weeks it appears the steel cables and chairs have also now been installed, according to images published Friday.
Such items, if imported from abroad, would be considered as prohibited under current UN sanctions restricting metals, though China may not recognize chairlifts as “transportation items” or “recreational sports equipment” as explicitly stated as prohibited under “luxury goods” stipulations in sanctions resolutions 2094 and 2270.
But the EU, for example, amended its own regulations to include chairlifts as explicit luxury goods after an Austrian company provided gondolas to the Masikryong ski resort in 2014.
The UN Panel of Experts 2014 report found that ski lifts for Masikryong were supplied by the Chinese company ENFI Engineering Corporation, though the company has not promoted any more recent work in North Korea.
Red snowblowers that look similar to models from a Swiss company also seen at Masikryong — which invited investigation from the UN Panel of Experts at the time — are also newly visible at the resort.
In addition, those the Yangdok resort is also likely to need, such as skiing gear and snowmobiles, are on the other hand explicitly listed as luxury goods under sanctions resolutions passed by UN member states, including China.
Joining Kim for the visit this week according to the Rodong report were director of the party Central Committee’s United Front Department (UFD) Jang Kum Chol, top advisor Jo Yong Won, vice director at the Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) Hyon Song Wol, and vice department director likely of the Finance and Accountancy Bureau Han Kwang Sang.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, said that Jang’s appearance is notable in that as director of the UFD – a position which charges him with overseeing inter-Korean relations – he has shown up at the past two consecutive visits to Yangdok with Kim Jong Un.
Jang has not made any other public appearances since taking over the position from Kim Yong Chol earlier this year except for a visit to the South Korea-built Mount Kumgang resort on the same day as the previous Yangdok visit on October 23, where Kim Jong Un announced plans to dismantle the resort and where he praised Yangdok’s design as far more favorable.
Featured image: Rodong Sinmun