North Korea To Open Tourist Resort, But Experts Think It Will Be A Waste Of Money

Dec 30, 2019
Originally published on December 30, 2019 4:36 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A tourist agency is now accepting online applications to attend the grand opening of a new resort. It's supposed to have all the usual luxury fixtures - chic hotels, waterpark, marina for your private yacht. It will also have monuments to the ruling Kim dynasty - Kim as in Kim Jong Un. Yes, this resort is in North Korea. Before you scramble to book your stay, you might want to hear a little bit from NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who is in Seoul and tracking the resort story from there.

Hey, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So where exactly in North Korea is this? And when exactly might it open?

KUHN: The place is called Wonsan Kalma, and it's on North Korea's southeast coast. The scheduled opening is April 15, 2020, also known as The Day of the Sun, which is Kim Il Sung's birthday. That's the birthday of Kim Jong Un's grandfather. And it is believed to be Kim Jong Un's brainchild. But anyways, if you look at the satellite images and state media pictures, the high-rise hotels are up on this long strip of beach. The problem is that they appear to be mostly shells. Their interiors aren't done. And that's because Kim's idea was to show that his country can build a world-class resort, even under sanctions. Tourism is not subject to international sanctions; construction materials are, financing is. And a lot of things they need for this resort are subject to sanctions. And that's apparently why the opening has been delayed.

KELLY: All right, so it sounds like they have a lot of work to do to get this place actually ready for tourists between now and next April. What tourists are they expecting to come? I ask because U.S. citizens can't travel on our usual passports to get there. I'm guessing they're not expecting a lot of American bookings.

KUHN: Yes, the travel agency that's taking bookings now says no Americans, no South Koreans and no Japanese. I think they're expecting some well-heeled domestic tourists. But mostly, they're expecting tourists from neighboring China. The problem there is once they get there, there may not be anywhere else for them to go. They can't just travel around the country at will. They may be stuck there.

KELLY: Is this part of the big economic push that Kim Jong Un rolled out last year, where he said, we're now going to shift focus and focus all attention and national energy on fixing the economy, on increasing standard of living? Does this resort fit into that picture?

KUHN: Yes, it does. It's part of a number of very limited economic reforms that Kim Jong Un has introduced. He's allowed the rudiments of a consumer economy to spring up. And he's talked about improving living standards for the people and talked about consumption instead of production. He's allowed some free market activities, but there's no sign that he intends to let these go too far or allow too much freedom of movement, too much freedom of information. So ultimately, these appear to be just vanity projects, and experts believe they're going to be money-losers (ph) the whole way. North Korea's economy has now been contracting for two years in a row under sanctions, and aid agencies say that many North Koreans don't have enough food to eat. And these projects are expected to make the problem worse.

KELLY: So many ironies in what you're saying there - and I'm wondering about another one, which is this. This is a luxury beach resort in Wonsan, which, if I'm not mistaken, is also where North Korea has carried out missile tests in the past. And this comes, of course, as tensions are ratcheting up yet again with the U.S. over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

KUHN: That's right. It's just down the coastline from a missile launch site, where missiles and rockets were launched this year.

KELLY: Exactly what you're looking for in your holiday beach booking.

KUHN: Yes (laughter). At this time, I think the last thing on people's minds is of a beach vacation in North Korea because Kim Jong Un is expected to announce a shift to a hard-line policy probably in his New Year's address on Wednesday, which could include breaking off nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and ending North Korea's self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests.

KELLY: Fascinating - NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting there from Seoul about a new luxury resort scheduled to open in 2020 in North Korea.

Thanks, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome, Mary Louise.

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