At least 170 buildings are being constructed at a mammoth new tourist resort zone on North Korea’s Wonsan Kalma peninsula, NK Pro analysis of April 27-dated Planet Labs Skysat satellite imagery shows.

The full scale of the project – first announced in Kim Jong Un’s 2018 New Year Speech and being built at ultra-rapid pace by what appear to be thousands of soldier workers – has to date not been revealed in official DPRK state media coverage.

But high-resolution Skysat imagery and ground-level North Korean state media images together reveal a construction site over 4.5km in length, including everything from pyramid-shaped hotel buildings to private villas and an artificial lake.

April 27 high-resolution imagery of the Wonsan-Kalma tourist resort, by Planet Labs Skysat | CLICK TO ENLARGE

And while many of the buildings in the satellite imagery are of a relatively long but thin profile, in ground-level photos many reach ten floors high, suggesting resort capacity will be in the high thousands or low tens of thousands upon completion.

“It appears the Kalma Coastal Tourist Area is the most ambitious construction project launched yet in the Kim Jong Un era,” said Curtis Melvin of the NK EconWatch blog when analyzing Skysat imagery of the location in March this year.

Annotations show the locations of resort buildings, roads and artificial lake super-imposed over 2016-dated imagery | Images: Google Earth / Planet Labs Skysat

Aimed at South Korea?

While no definitive information about the intended audience of the resort has yet been publicized by North Korean state media, its announcement as part of a Kim Jong Un speech containing an olive branch to Seoul has led to speculation that attracting tourists from south of the DMZ may be its primary goal.

Not only is the new resort situated adjacent to the recently modernized Wonsan Kalma International airport – which has seen just one international flight to date, from South Korea – but tourism is also one of the few remaining industries not currently targeted by United Nations sanctions.

“I think many people working on tourism in the DPRK know that Wonsan is only going to ever take off once Korean and Japanese tourists can come en masse,” said Andray Abrahamian, a regular visitor to North Korea and senior fellow at the Pacforum in Hawaii.

“They also know that depends on more freedom for tourists and a breakthrough on DPRK relations with South Korea, Japan and the United States,” he continued. “Those things are all out of their hands.”

Ground level photos from April and May 2018, published by KCTV and Rodong Sinmun

But with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo already raising the possibility of major private investment from American business in the event of a successful Trump-Kim Jong Un summit, it’s possible a breakthrough in DPRK foreign relations could soon be on the cards.

“If this inter-Korean stuff picks up, they’re going to open up Mt. Kumgang again and expand it to Wonsan,” said an informed travel industry source about the new resort, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It “makes sense” for North Korea to aim to host South Korean tourists on the remote northeast side of the Kalma peninsula, the source continued, because it would facilitate an organic separation from locals.

“There’s no other reason for it to be so far away from the town.”

Calvin Chua, an expert in North Korean architecture, said that satellite imagery showed access to the sprawling facility appeared – for now – to be highly restricted.

“The layout seems to suggest only a single entry point,” he said. “This would mean that the development is likely to have a regulated entry, perhaps a gated residential district or a resort.”

Such restrictions could be deliberate: South Korean access to places like Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong City was extremely limited, with major efforts made by North Korean authorities to prevent excessive inter-Korean mingling from taking place.

Another hint that the project, when completed, would be targeted at South Korean visitors is the style of the construction, Chua added.

“It’s like creating a Kumgangsan resort (built by Hyundai Asan) on the beachfront,” he said. “The buildings are spreaded quite far apart compared to those in the urban areas, thus giving a sense of exclusivity.”


Rapid speed

Timelapse imagery obtained from Planet Labs shows the entire construction effort at the beach to have kicked off only in early January, immediately after Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s speech.

The timelapse quickly shows the emergence of scores of temporary shelters and facilities for workers at the facility, with satellite imagery showing such facilities surrounding three sides of the resort.

At major construction projects, North Korean soldiers are often drafted and housed in this way in temporary lodging adjacent to their location of work, something which ground-level KCTV footage confirmed in May.

But the pace of construction appears to also be being accelerated by stadium-style lighting erected in perimeter corners, April KCTV images show, which would offer the potential for round-the-clock work, a common trait in major North Korean projects.

KCTV footage shows lights for night-time construction, a common practice at major North Korean building projects

However, though an official target completion date has yet to be announced – unlike with Pyongyang’s Ryomyong Street, originally slated to be completed in under a year – multiple sources in North Korea told NK News in March the aim is to complete the new resort by July 27: the 65th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

While that may seem unthinkable, ground-level footage shows that only four months into construction, the cores of many of the largest buildings are already complete.

“If all goes as planned I predict the ‘Kalma Seaside Tourism Area’ will open after mid to late August or early September,” Michael Spavor of Paektu Cultural Exchange told NK News about construction progress in March.

And in the event of improving geopolitical conditions making the resort one day accessible for South Koreans, one analyst said he thought success could be on the cards.

“Tours to neighboring Kumgang-san were very popular when I lived in ROK in the early 2000s, lots of people had been or intended to go on the bus (also boat) there,” said Tristan Webb, an analyst for NK Pro.

“In terms of the possible appeal for South Koreans – beside the excitement value of being able to go into the DPRK – a topographical map shows that not only is there an easy route from Seoul to Wonsan, it’s actually closer than Busan and (world famous) Haeundae beach.”

And South Koreans prefer east coast waters, Webb continued, which are “much clearer, cleaner, and deeper than on the west sea,” meaning that “in the long term Wonsan has the potential to become Korea’s top beach for tourism.”

Edited by Oliver Hotham

Featured image: Rodong Sinmun