North Korean state media has in recent months promoted the country’s most important national construction projects as the large beach resort in Wonsan, the renewal of Samjiyon County – both widely covered in international media – as well as another, lesser-known project in Yangdok County.

NK Pro can reveal for the first time the progress on the ground at the new Yangdok Hot Springs Tourist Area via satellite imagery, exposing that the project, while smaller than some of the others in size, rivals the other major construction projects currently ongoing in the country in scope and political importance.

The main area encompassing both a hot springs resort and ski hill, as well as hotels and other facilities, covers a roughly 4km² area, while an entire new train line is being built from a rural station around 7km away.

Demolition of hundreds of residential homes and the building of new apartment blocks has also occurred both in the village around the station (named Soktang Hot Springs Station or 석탕온천역) and near the resort grounds.

Kim Jong Un inspects outdoor hot spring baths at the Yangdok resort in April 2019 | Photo: Rodong Sinmun

The North Korean leader has visited the site of the Yangdok Hot Springs Tourist Area (양덕온천관광지구) project three times since last year – first in August 2018, then in October, and most recently in April this year – with the plans and progress changing drastically each time and with the official October 10, 2019 deadline fast approaching.

So what will the latest large-scale national construction project foreign-facing tourist zone contain, how much progress has been made, and how does it fit into bigger plans for development and tourism in the southeast region of North Korea?

What is known about the project

In his first visit to the site last August, Kim toured an existing greenhouse complex with rudimentary hot springs pools and pipings in the area, and reportedly decided to build a “hot spring health resort and sanatoria” to include indoor and outdoor baths as well as lodgings in its place.

When he visited a second time in late October, the greenhouses had been demolished and builders were stacking concrete blocks in their place, as Kim brought a new plan to make a resort “divided into recuperation section and tourist and relaxation section.”

The site of the new Yangdok resort was a greenhouse complex until last August, seen behind Kim during his initial visit that month | Photo: KCNA

During his latest visit to the project site on April 5, Kim Jong Un announced that the tourist zone should also include skiing facilities, with coverage providing details of the range of buildings and amenities to be constructed.

According to this coverage and subsequent reports in state media, these will include:

  • Recuperation district with hot springs baths and a health treatment service center
  • Rest district with hot springs baths and a general sporting and cultural rest center 
  • General service district, likely with shops and restaurants 
  • Hotel district with various types of lodgings
  • Ski hill and lift with related facilities

In addition, other infrastructure projects underway as part of the tourist zone include upgrading the rail station at the nearby Soktang Hot Springs Station, building a new rail line from there to the new Onjong Station built at the resort site, tunnels and bridges needed for the line, and new roads between the two stations.

New apartment blocks have been built around Soktang Hot Springs Station and in various locations between there and the resort as well as immediately surrounding the resort.

Renders of planned buildings as published on April 6 | Click to enlarge | Photo: Rodong Sinmun

There has also been a heavy focus in coverage in the party daily Rodong Sinmun on afforestation efforts, while coverage of Kim’s second visit described the need to build infrastructure for “regular power and communications, service water supply, [and] sewage disposal.”

As part of the main buildings in the resort, an image published in state media after Kim’s latest visit reveals the main central building will be a winged “recuperation” building in the “healing district,” and that other buildings include two 6-7-story “rest” buildings, “loft-style” lodgings, three large inns, a shopping and services strip, a government hospital-run “recuperation and rest center,” and various other lodgings and buildings.

What appears to be the current master-plan blueprint (which could still change as other construction projects have shown) seen behind Kim Jong Un in April reveals around 50 apartment blocks or other lodging buildings, public or management facilities, the ski hill and buildings at its base, a park with winding paths near the main buildings, and even that an existing catfish farm on site will be incorporated into the zone instead of being demolished. 

The most recent master-plan as seen during Kim Jong Un’s April inspection | Photo: KCTV

Construction progress 

Despite having visited the tourist resort site three times, satellite imagery shows construction did not truly begin to ramp up until after Kim’s third visit in April 2019. 

After his first visit in mid-August, it took until the last days of the month for the greenhouses Kim had toured to be demolished, according to daily medium-resolution satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs.

Foundations of the main buildings at the center of the resort and apartment blocks just to the southeast only began to appear starting from late January to early February, following Kim giving “detailed instructions for the modification of the master plan” in his late October visit and preceding him viewing the “newly made master plan” in April.

Soktang Hot Springs Station | Photo: Planet Labs, edited by NK Pro

Between early February and late March, small homes around the resort area and around Soktang Hot Springs Station began to be demolished, while work on building a rail bridge from the station heading east also began. 

Following Kim’s April 5 visit, a temporary structure complex began to appear around the catfish farm only after April 17, according to the imagery, which was followed by a rapid increase in construction speed.

The main building area seen in photos of Kim Jong Un during that visit showed structures in their beginning framing stages, while a series of articles in the Rodong Sinmun in mid-May showed frames of many buildings nearly complete.

A collage of photos from the construction site published in the party newspaper on June 7 | Photo: Rodong Sinmun

An article published on May 12 said workers would “completely finish the framing construction of the hot spring tourism zone” by the end of that month, and that total construction progress had passed the halfway mark.

It is difficult to determine based on the available imagery if the workers met this goal, though June 13-dated imagery shows a large number of buildings in the main area possibly passing the framing stage, and all of the apartment blocks in the southeast of the zone had not yet been built.

Images appearing in the Rodong on June 7, however, did indeed show some building exteriors nearly finished, with workers still plastering over facades of the buildings constructed mostly using small concrete blocks.

Progress at the main resort site from last fall until June 2019 | Photo: Planet Labs, edited by NK Pro

Kim’s latest request to be added to the project, a new ski resort, began to take shape in the hill at the southern edge of the zone by early May, according to the daily imagery.

Eleven new completed apartment blocks and more buildings in the early stages of construction also replaced almost 100 small homes and gardens around Soktang Hot Springs Station by May 24, and rail bridge pillars but not yet the platform had been built across the small river, a high-resolution image from Planet Labs showed.

An article in the Rodong published May 18 stated workers were making breakthroughs in tunnel and bridge construction along the new line, while a May 22 article stated the station there had been rebuilt between February and the end of April.

By mid-June, the shape of the rail line was visible in satellite imagery, carved out through the mountains and roughly along the existing road between the station and the resort site.

The most recent imagery from June 24 shows that red roofing has begun to be installed in some of the apartment blocks around the resort, which is the same color appearing in the render images shown on site during Kim’s latest visit. 

Full view between the two stations comparing images from July 30, 2018 and June 24, 2019 | Photo: Google Earth (2018) Planet Labs (2019), edited by NK Pro

But it appears that much work remains to be done to complete the project by October 10 this year – a deadline which was reaffirmed most recently in a May 12 article in the Rodong, and by Kim Jong Un in state media coverage of his April 5 visit in stating plans to “operate the hot-spring ground and ski resort from winter this year.”

So why there, and why now?

The creation of a hot springs resort, ostensibly to complement the nearby Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area (officially set to open in April 2020) and Masikryong Ski Resort, initially appears to be a reasonable project.

State media coverage claims it is being built “for the people” and focuses heavily on the workers’ dedication and sacrifice for Kim Jong Un – one article even described a “dangerous” situation where “soldiers wrapped a rope around their bodies and hung from a cliff” to excavate land from a hillside.

The area’s “sacred” status was also recently promoted in an article published in the Rodong on May 14, legitimizing the project under state propagandist lore in connection with the Mt. Paektu bloodline, saying the country’s founding leader Kim Il Sung “participated in the opening ceremony of the Yangdok Recreation Center” in July 1947. 

A poster advertising the healing effects of the “Yangdok spa” on various skin conditions and other diseases, from the country’s primary international tour agency. The logo in the top left for “Hot Springs Tourism” indicates a larger national plan in the sector | Click to enlarge | Photo: Sogwang.com

But the project appears to be targeting foreign tourists as well, as is evident in a poster from the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) displayed during this past April’s National Industrial Art Exhibition, which calls the resort the “Yangdok spa” in English. 

The KITC does also serve domestic tourists, however, and other information on the poster is in Korean, indicating it may serve as a destination for group trips or wealthier individuals in the country, much like the Masikryong Ski Resort.

“Masikryong does have dorm style rooms for work or school group visits, so maybe they’ll split them [at Yangdok] into high-end and more plebeian resorts,” Andray Abrahamian, Koret Fellow at Stanford University, told NK Pro. “Maybe one more local and one more foreign. Hard to know.”

But the reason Kim Jong Un ordered a new ski resort just 40km from Masikryong is not immediately clear, especially as tourists arriving in Wonsan-Kalma will likely need to pass Masikryong on the road into Yangdok. Its likely connection with the beach resort on tourist itineraries is supported by the fact that coverage of all three Kim visits to Yangdok were published on the same days as inspections of Wonsan-Kalma.  

Photo: Bing Maps

Given its closer proximity to Pyongyang, however, as well as the building of the new train line to the resort, it may also serve as a closer ski destination for those coming from the capital.

The ski resort is also presented almost as a bonus to the main attraction of the hot spring baths, with the DPRK leader during his April visit describing his vision that “people would be pleased to play ski in the day time and take a rest while taking baths in hot-spring in the evening.”

In his first visit last August, he defended the project as filling a gap in the country’s resort portfolio, saying “hot spring resources are renowned for … enormous efficacy for health and medical treatment” and that “there is no excellent health complex that has been built properly” in the country to take advantage of such hot springs. 

The most current blueprint shown in April can also be seen obstructed but in higher quality in this image | Photo: Rodong Sinmun

He also defended its location after reportedly touring various other natural hot springs as well, saying “Yangdok County neighbors a number of counties and ris as it is in the middle of the east-west railways and borders four provinces,” adding that “one good point is the traffic convenience with the Pyongyang-Wonsan Highway nearby.”

Abrahamian said that the North Koreans “seem to be dreaming really big on this whole area,” and that “they believe this can be a major tourist destination” likely pending positive results of ongoing negotiations with the U.S. on sanctions and denuclearization.

State media coverage has also framed the building of the Yangdok Hot Springs Tourist Area as part of larger efforts to boost hot springs infrastructure nationwide, with Kim reportedly saying in his first visit that “all hot spring areas in the country should be gradually revitalized.”

A collage of photos featured in the party newspaper on May 12 depicted buildings in early framing stages, as well as afforestation work and propaganda singers encouraging workers on site | Click to enlarge | Photo: Rodong Sinmun

Kim said in his third visit that Yangdok and the Onpho Hot Spring Rest Center – likely a new name for the Onpho Holiday Camp he inspected in July 2018 –  should serve as models for more projects. 

But whether an urgently-needed model or merely a business target, Kim Jong Un is likely pushing hard for the Yangdok hot springs and ski facilities to be open in time to service tourists this winter, as he explicitly stated.

The pace of progress appears to suggest this is possible, though the scope of the infrastructural requirements to make the project “world-class” as Kim Jong Un also said will make meeting the October 10 deadline a difficult task.

Featured image: Rodong Sinmun