About the Author
View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Updated at 16:10 KST to include more images from the afternoon’s state television broadcast, and corrected at Mar. 19 10:55 KST due to a translation error
North Korean soldiers and builders began construction on the Pyongyang General Hospital in the heart of the capital on Tuesday and were ordered by the country’s leader Kim Jong Un to finish the project by this October, state media reported Wednesday.
Kim made a speech at the ground-breaking ceremony in which he lamented the poor state of the nation’s medical sector and repeatedly stressed the urgency of the new hospital project, according to the ruling party daily Rodong Sinmun.
The deadline of October 10 this year to coincide with the 75th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) — just over 200 days away — must be strictly met, even to the detriment of other construction projects, he reportedly said.
Rendered images of the hospital on site and aired on state television Wednesday depicts plans to build a long four-story building filling the narrow park between the Monument to the Party Founding and the Taedong River, with twin buildings of around 15 stories on the east end.
“Frankly speaking, at our Party Plenary Meeting the country’s health and medical treatment sector’s current state of reality was thoroughly, scientifically, and honestly evaluated, and it pained my heart to criticize the fact that our country’s own capital does not wholly have modern medical treatment facilities,” a transcript of the speech printed in the Rodong said.
Kim and party officials at the four-day plenum ending on December 31 therefore “discussed and decided on the tasks to first construct a modern general hospital in Pyongyang for the promotion of the health of the people for the 75th Party Foundation anniversary this year.”
The speech Tuesday harped heavily on the difficulties the project is likely to face to meet the short construction deadline, emphasizing the 2020 top-line propaganda slogan that this year is “the first year of the head-on battle to break through.”
“Currently, construction conditions are not favorable to us,” Kim said, describing “numerous obstacles” but nonetheless repeatedly warning of consequences for poor construction quality in the 200-day project.
“We can’t just sit by and forego construction until there are favorable conditions,” he added, reflecting language also used in his plenum speech.
Kim called for the large new hospital to be built to modern standards, and said he “already ordered cadres of the relevant sectors to visit the hospitals which are said to have the highest development standards in the world” in order to gain knowledge for use in the project.
The deadline of this October 10 was also stressed multiple times, with Kim in his speech at the ceremony reportedly saying “there are only about 200 days remaining” and that “of course completing this enormous construction in such a short period of time is no easy task.”
But he also said that the hospital project under the short deadline would “push back many other construction works the central Party planned to finish this year,” perhaps signaling some delays for other top-priority projects.
Kim called the construction part of “the line on self-reliant development amid the heinous internal and external situation,” later clarifying to say “the Pyongyang General Hospital will smash with laughter the hostile forces’ dirty sanctions and blockade.”
And while there were no overt mentions of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis or the preventative measures the country is taking, the attendance of a crowd of thousands of soldiers of the “Guards Hero Brigade (근위영웅려단)” and “comrades of the Construction Bureau 8 (8건설국)” at the ceremony — the units he personally “trusts most” — could be significant.
The decision to invite the units could potentially be a sign of — or at least intention to promote — greater confidence in the nation’s hold on the crisis, as the gathering Tuesday was the largest since strict measures to block the spread of the virus in North Korea were instituted in early February and such group events largely disappeared from state media by mid-month.
Large group gatherings were also announced in the Rodong in late February as having been “strictly forbidden.”
Kim Jong Un and other top officials such as Pak Pong Ju, Kim Jae Ryong, Ri Il Hwan, and Pak Thae Song began the ceremony wearing masks but removed and kept them off partway through — a break from even earlier in the week when Pak Pong Ju in a site inspection was shown wearing one.
The tightly-packed crowd of workers, however, were still seen wearing masks.
Preparations for construction of the Pyongyang General Hospital in the WPK monument park appear to have begun in the last week of January when temporary structures appeared on site, according to Planet Labs daily medium-resolution satellite imagery seen by NK News.
The plans were not previously mentioned either in official reports on the late-December plenum nor in state media during what Kim referred to in his speech as the past two months of site selection, architectural planning, and addressing resource allocation issues.
The project also comes as plans for a new Pyongyang Municipal People’s Hospital No. 1 situated near the Arch of Triumph appear on hold, after the old buildings were demolished in early 2018 to make room for modern facilities.
Other hospital projects completed in Pyongyang under Kim Jong Un have been more targeted to specific subsets of patients such as the Ryugyong General Ophthalmic Hospital in 2016 and both the Ryugyong Dental Hospital and Okryu Children’s Hospital in 2014.
More recently, the new Samjiyon City People’s Hospital was unveiled during Kim Jong Un’s opening of the “utopian” city in the country’s north last December, later reportedly receiving gifts of equipment from Kim in February and praise for being a model local hospital to “meet the demands of the new century.”
But the renewed attention on general medical facilities follows Kim’s harsh criticism of the state of the country’s medical appliances production in a visit last October to the completely reconstructed Myohyangsan Medical Appliances Factory.
And though Kim has encouraged better domestic production of medical equipment, to meet the modern standards he mentioned in his speech Tuesday the country will likely need to import a large number of items that are infamously caught up in an international sanctions regime that creates obstacles to their shipment into the country.
Meanwhile, state media on Wednesday also released three new propaganda posters for the October 10 Party Foundation holiday, calling the day — serving as the deadline for other major construction projects as well — an occasion for a national “grand festival.”
Edited by James Fretwell