Pyongyang is often referred to as a showcase capital, for good reason. Anyone who is anyone lives in Pyongyang, anyone who is not anyone is only permitted to enter the city under special circumstances and they certainly cannot live there. The infrastructure, buildings, services and facilities are the best North Korea can offer.
With a few noted exceptions, North Korea outside Pyongyang is a different world but it is a world that is changing, albeit slowly. While only the fifth largest city with a population of around 365,000, Wonsan, in terms of recent development, comes (a distant) second to Pyongyang.
After a pictorial review of my trip from Hamhung to Wonsan this post, in addition to providing a brief history of Wonsan at the end, focuses on Kim Jong-un’s personal relationship with Wonsan. This a a variation from my usual post as the content, while in part briefly referred to by our guides, is of a more non-tourist nature. However, I feel it provides some useful context and something of an insight into Kim Jong-un which I hope you will find interesting, if a little rambling.
After our early morning visit to Tonghung Hill and the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in Hamhung we set off for Wonsan, a couple of hours drive to the south. Our bus trip took us through very scenic countryside and villages, both liberally dotted with those ubiquitous statues, murals and eternal life monuments commemorating the Leaders together with banners and posters exhorting the people to work hard and put their country first.
Kim Jong-un and Wonsan
When Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011 one of his stated aims was to improve the economy and ‘enable our people… to live without tightening their belts any longer.”
For his own perseveration, if nothing else, he certainly recognised the need to open and expand the North Korean economy in a controlled way, rather than let all expansion occur through the unregulated private and black markets. These unregulated markets had developed following the failure of the state food distribution system during the 1990s famine which left, depending on whose estimates you believe, between 200,000 and three million people dead. While Kim Jong-un has, in the main, turned a blind eye to small scale private markets (in reality the country could not function without them) he risked loosing credibility and control if he did not act on the economy. He needed to make a name for himself, internally.
Early on, in his attempts to improve the economy and lifestyle of his people, he took a particular interest in the development on Wonsan. This particular emphasis on Wonsan was due, I suspect, to his personal ties to the city.
While Kim Jong-un’s place of birth has not yet been confirmed by North Korea (perhaps they have not decided on that yet!) one of the contenders is Wonsan. Even if he was not born here he certainly spent a large proportion of his childhood (outside his schooling in Switzerland) in Wonsan and his resort here continues to be his favourite of a number of residences/resorts he owns outside Pyongyang – Kim Jong-un’s equivalent to President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, if you like.
Not realising it at the time, when I visited the Songdowon International Children’s Camp I was only a couple of hundred metres from Kim’s Wonsan resort. Thinking back, the level of security in the vicinity of the camp was excessive to keep a few hundred children under check, even in North Korea.
Kim’s residence in situated on the Korean Sea (the Sea of Japan, for non-Koreans) and comprises a few residences, numerous guest villas, a train station, private beach, docks and accommodation for his luxury yacht and all manner of other recreation facilities. For much of 2020 Kim Jong-un disappeared from the world stage. Based on satellite images showing his private train at his station here in Wonsan and other activity around the resort it is thought that he has been spending much of his time here (and not dead as speculated by much of the world’s press!). Perhaps he has been sheltering himself here from Covid-19 though any commentary on Covid-19 in North Korea is fraught with difficulty due to its lockdown, like none other around the world.
Shortly after coming to power Kim Jong-un embarked on a multi-billion dollar plan to transform the Wonsan and Mt Kumgang areas (formally the Wonsan Special Tourist Zone as launched in 2015 and covering an area of more than 400 square km (150 square miles) into an international tourist destination, aimed primarily at South Koreans and Chinese high rollers. According to one promotional brochure the Tourist Zone would include approximately 140 historical relics, 10 sand beaches, 680 tourist attractions, 4 mineral springs, several bathing resorts and natural lakes and “more than 3.3 million tons of mud with therapeutic properties for neuralgia and colitis.”
Much of Kim’s detailed plans emanate from a visit by sixteen of his officials to Spain in 2017. There they visited Marina d’Or, one the country largest holiday complexes, and the Terra Mitica theme park in Benidorm, catering, according to its website, to fans “of extreme sensations”.
His earliest project, in 2014, was to refurbish the Songdowon International Children’s Camp – a camp designed to foster better international relations by bringing together Korean and international secondary school children in a fun summer camp environment.
Since then the Wonsan-Kalma International Airport and the Masikryong Ski Resort have been constructed and work has substantially progressed on a number of hotels and resorts though there have been delays, primarily due to increased US lead sanctions since 2014, meaning that anticipated foreign investment has not been able to happen.
These delays however can only partly account for the fact that, across the country, he has fallen well short of one million visitors per annum in ‘the near term’ and around five million to ten million tourists per annum “in the foreseeable future” – targets he set in the early 2010s. In relation to Wonsan, there is still not one scheduled international or domestic flight connecting with the new airport and apart from the occasional chartered flight it stands deserted, a white elephant if ever there was one. My friend Sarah, who visited North Korea in 2019, was fortunate enough to use the airport via a chartered flight and has included a first hand account, along with some excellent photographs, on her blog, HERE.
I will come back to a Tourist Area adjacent to the new airport shortly.
In addition to catering for foreign tourists, special retreats have been built, south of Wonsan near Lake Sijung (which we later visited), for the staff of three organisations, among others, which are especially close to the Leadership’s hearts as they are crucial to keeping it in foreign exchange and in keeping an eye out for internal subversion. These organisations are the Daesong General Bureau (Office 39 which procures luxury goods for the Kim family), the Korean National Insurance Corporation (allegedly – by the EU – involved in insurance fraud) and the State Security Department or “Bowibu” (the entity which runs prison camps and conducts nationwide surveillance of citizens).
In line with Kim Jong-un’s ‘byungjin’ policy (a term coined by him in 2013 and harking back to a similar policy of his grandfather in the 1960s) or the parallel development of the country’s military/ nuclear deterrent and its economy, when the Wonsan-Kalma airport was built a missile testing site with launch pads, hangers and observation platforms was integrated into the grounds, which include the beach running parallel to the runway.
This beach was the venue for North Korea’s largest-ever artillery drill in April 2017 and then again in August of the same year when Kim Jong-un watched on as 300 large-caliber self-propelled guns pummelled the small island offshore.
Since these 2017 exercises dozens of apartment blocks, tourist accomodations, etc have been built by 150,000 soldier builders and ordinary citizens between the runway (and missile hanger) and the beach in what is now called the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area.
Unlike most building projects in North Korea but similar to other developments in this area, there were a number of delays in completing the Tourist Area. Kim Jong-un, in extending the completion deadline in August 2018 to the 10th of October 2019 ( the anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea and a major holiday) encouraged those building the resort thus:-
“The construction of the Wonsan-Kalma beach resort is similar to a massive, creative and great battle that we must fight with intensity against the enemy forces who are trying to suffocate our people through criminal sanctions and blockades”
I don’t know if these buildings are currently in use or if they sit here in a forlorn state like the airport, awaiting the arrival of the anticipated hordes of tourists.
Equally importantly, I don’t know if further missile tests have taken place from the beach or if more are planned once the resort is up and running. Perhaps further testing could be a tourist drawcard in itself. There would be very few places in the world that you could get a bird’s eye view of tests like those that took place in 2017. BYO earplugs would be my advice if booking in here!
Perhaps the most ambitious part of Kim Jong-un’s plan for Wonsan is the proposed redevelopment of Wonsan city centre which, if implemented, would involve a large part of the current city centre being demolished and rebuilt to include towering futuristic edifices mirroring the ones he has built in Pyongyang.
Wonsan Pre Kim Jong-un
While the current and future shaping of Wonsan can be attributed to Kim Jong-un the port and naval city of Wonsan has existed since 1880 when it was established to trade with Japan. The Japanese further developed the port and industry in the neighbouring area during their formal occupation of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945. In 1914 they established the P’yŏngwŏn and Kyŏngwŏn railway lines connecting the city to Pyongyang and Seoul (then Keijo or Kyŏngsŏng) thus establishing Wonsan as an important distribution centre for the whole peninsula.
During the Korean War (1950-1953) the city was initially captured by US and South Korean troops on 10 October 1950 to be lost on 9 December 1950 when the US lead forces fled ahead of a Chinese counter-attack. Given the military significance of the city to North Korea, US lead forces soon returned in force and blockaded the city. US naval sources indicate that the Blockade of Wonsan lasted from March 1951 to the 27th July 1953 by which time they had basically razed the city to the ground.
Notwithstanding its loss of the Korean Peninsula trading links wth Japan, through the port of Wonsan, continued until 2006 when they were cut, by Japan, due to international sanctions. The Man Gyong Bong 92 ferry, which I will refer to in another post, today sitting alongside the dock, is a lasting reminder of North Korea’s trading links with Japan.
In addition to being an important industrial and trading centre for North Korea, Wonsan is of great symbolic importance for the Kim dynasty. It was here that Kim Il-sung, the newly appointed leader of North Korea (by the Soviet Union which assumed administrative control over the northern part of the peninsula on the ousting of Japan in 1945) arrived back into the country after, per North Korean history, almost single handedly bringing to an end Japan’s 35 years of colonial occupation. Today statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il mark the spot on the quayside where Kim Il-sung landed in 1945.
On his return to Wonsan Kim Il-sung stayed at the guesthouse by the former railway station. From that station he made his way across the country, by train, for a triumphal return to Pyongyang, the city which he had left, for Manchuria, in 1925, vowing not to return until Korea had been liberated from Japanese rule. The guesthouse and station were both destroyed in the US blanket bombing of the country during the Korean War.
In 1975, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s liberation of Korea from Japanese occupation and his return from his revolutionary exploits to Korea via Wonsan, the former station and guesthouse were rebuilt – not as an operating guesthouse or station (there are no tracks) but rather as a revolutionary site, in memory of the Great Leader.
My next North Korea – Wonsan review HERE