North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has presided over a construction boom since he took office two years ago with the aid of funds from China, the North’s major backer, and Russia, a former Cold War ally.
A stronger focus on the economy is a major change in policy for the third Kim to rule North Korea. The “military first” policy of Kim Jong Il, the young leader’s father, plunged North Korea into famine in the 1990s. But thanks to years of this policy, which prioritized investment in the armed forces, the young Kim can now draw on a 1.2 million strong army to realize his goals. These “soldier-builders” are often seen constructing apartment blocks and laying roads. And much of the land belongs to the state, removing another major cost from projects.
Chinese money paid for a $300 million suspension bridge across a one kilometre-wide stretch of the Yalu River, according to Chinese media reports, linking China’s port city of Dandong and its North Korean equivalent, Sinuiju.
Russia in September reopened a 54-km (34-mile) railway track from its eastern border town of Khasan to the North’s port of Rajin. And satellite imagery shows work is under way on a 100-km (60-mile) highway along North Korea’s east coast linking Hamhung to a tourist zone planned for the port city of Wonsan.
“It appears one goal is to link all the provincial capitals to Pyongyang by paved highway (and) increase road transport integration with the Chinese economy,” said Curtis Melvin, a researcher at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who spotted foundations for the Wonsan-Hamhung road using satellite imagery.
Improving roads will also underpin plans to turn North Korea into a tourist attraction – a move with potential economic gains in the short term that avoids restructuring ailing industrial plants that are starved of cash and electricity. One widely publicized public project is the Masik Ski Resort in the mountains to the west of Wonsan. North Korea aims to make $43.75 million in annual profit from the resort.
Kim Jong Un also made multiple trips to a new water park that opened on Oct. 15, which covers 110,000 square metres (27 acres) on the bank of the Taedong River that runs through the capital Pyongyang. His frequent appearances at fun parks and equestrian centres have been mocked in foreign media, but they tie into the other development projects by targeting Chinese tourists, for whom the North is a cheap destination.