An August 2013 image from state media outlet KCNA showing hundreds of residents in the water at
Wonsan’s Songdowon beach resort. Image: KCNA
The North Korean authorities are mobilizing ordinary citizens and military conscripts alike in a push to accelerate construction of the “Wonsan Kalma Shore Tourist Zone” situated on the country’s east coast. Sources inside North Korea report that the authorities have conveyed their intentions to complete the project before the July 27 “Victory Day” holiday, which is referred to as National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day in South Korea.
The beach resort project, along with Kalma Airport and the Masik Pass Ski Resort, all appear to be part of a larger plan by Kim Jong Un to address economic difficulties by generating more tourism revenue. He made this clear in his 2018 New Year’s address, saying, “This year, service personnel and residents should join efforts to complete the construction of the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area in the shortest period of time.”
“The authorities have mobilized 120,000 military members and 20,000 ordinary citizens for the Wonsan construction project,” a source in China close to North Korean affairs told Daily NK on January 28. “People are worried over implications of another ‘speed battle’ (intense construction mobilization) after Kim Jong Un’s order to complete the project by July 27.”
According to the source, the current priority is building lodging (hotel facilities) for tourists at the Kalma beach resort.
North Korea first publicized plans for the Wonsan tourist zone in November of 2013 on their state-run “Naenara” website. These plans included the goal of accommodating 100,000 tourists at any given time in the Wonsan coastal area, including development of some adjacent islands.
They also announced plans to build a science and technology industrial complex along with a movie theater, golf driving range, underwater hotel, homestay lodgings, and other tourist-focused amenities in the Tunam region of the Kalma coast. However, the project failed to progress in the subsequent years due to material and manpower shortages, as well as unclear strategies for attracting tourists.
Between the original 2013 announcement and July 2017, official mentions of the Wonsan project were scarce. But the North has now reignited mentions of the project as plans for their participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics begin to take shape. The authorities hope that goodwill conveyed through the Olympics will translate into opportunities to earn foreign currency from a new wave of tourists to the Wonsan Kalma zone.
But for the locals mobilized to construct these projects, it is not only their labor that is being exploited. They also bear the burden of having to provide the construction materials themselves.
“The authorities are now issuing orders for Wonsan area residents to provide construction materials for the mobilized workers before March. All households in the area must also contribute things like winter clothing and rice, which is resulting in endless complaints from the residents,” a source in Kangwon Province added.
“The authorities are trying to reassure people that they will move to state-sponsored material support (instead of demanding resources from the locals) in April, but nobody believes them.”
There are also doubts emerging over the ability of the completed project to attract tourists.
While residents of the Wonsan area are known to boast of their region’s natural beauty and potential to attract tourists, the Kangwon-based source told Daily NK that many on the other hand believe the project is doomed to fail due to an inherent inability to compete in the global tourism industry.
“Developing tourist facilities like this will be a complete waste of time with continued strengthening of international sanctions,” he said. “There is an agreement among residents that any tourist money will only go to cadres and administrators, and that ordinary people won’t even be allowed to enter the areas.”
Meanwhile state media outlet KCNA reported on January 26 that the Wonsan Kalma project represents a “transformative opportunity” to become a “world-class tourist spot,” and that the country is moving to complete the project in “the shortest time possible.”