Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Kim Jong-un's First Decade in Power - Building Paradise

The city of Samjiyon after reconstruction. Image: KNCA, December 2019.


After the Korean War, North Korea had to be entirely rebuilt. Very few buildings, bridges, railways, or factories survived those three years. With substantial aid from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and China Kim Il-sung managed to rebuild most of the country by the mid-1960s and North Korea’s economy outpaced that of South Korea until ca. 1973.

Reforming the economy along socialist lines, introducing Stalinist architecture, and mobilizing millions really did mean that “socialist construction” was more than a mere slogan. And for many, who had for centuries lived in abject poverty, a paradise of sorts did arise in the beginning. But far from being a true socialist and self-sufficient state, North Korea relied on massive amounts of aid and imports at below-market prices, so-called “friendship prices”, from the Communist Bloc. New bureaucracies and elite classes (built upon the Songbun class system) also meant that the people were never on an equal footing, despite the official Party line.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the famine, Kim Jong-il struggled but failed to pull the country out of its economic decline. A mix of economic reforms, market activities, and growing illegal trade did mean that things slowly improved; however, economic conditions still have yet to fully recover from the famine years.

Every year, the leadership and the Workers’ Party of Korea offers new economic agendas and promises new successes toward the construction of a socialist paradise – a paradise that ever seems just out of reach. However, Kim Jong-un has taken the task about as seriously as one can, considering the huge expenditures on the military and the political and ideological constraints that exist.

Kim Jong-un appears to have recognized the economic drag the Songun Policy was causing through mismanagement and inefficient resource allocation, and also paid attention to the threats the state faced by ever-growing market-based activities and decided to take a different approach than Kim Jong-il.

He certainly wanted to complete the nuclear program as it practically guarantees regime survival, but there also needed to be economic growth and reforms. Not “reform” in the sense of opening up to the world and scrapping the centrally planned economy, but reform as in renovating the existing system to become more efficient, to seek new ways to evade sanctions, and help the government reign in market activity outside of its purview.

In 2013, Kim began to move away from Songun and toward a policy that had been promoted by Kim Il-sung called Byungjin (parallel development). Kim Jong-un’s iteration of Byungjin prioritizes both nuclear development and economic development, and theoretically, not one over the other. The economic development portion is focused on light and medium industry, tourism, science and technology, transportation, and energy, whereas under Kim Jong-il’s Songun, he had wanted to maintain an economic focus on heavy industry to support military requirements; often neglecting the rest of the economy and preventing any meaningful rise in people’s living standards.

The topic of living standards has been something Kim Jong-un hasn’t ignored. During the 2013 WPK meeting in which he promulgated his ideas for Byungjin, Kim stressed that it would lead to a “strong and prosperous nation where the people can enjoy the wealth and splendor of socialism.”

While weapons’ development certainly hasn’t taken a back seat, the number of major construction projects skyrocketed after Kim’s ascent to power. Touching every sector of the economy and culture, the proliferation of new projects has changed the face of the country, as Kim has staked a considerable part of his legitimacy on domestic policies and the economy.

Whether or not these projects are merely shallow attempts at propaganda wins or will make a fundamental difference in people's lives and the economy is largely up for debate as it will take more than concrete and steel to cause the fundamental reforms needed for lasting economic growth.



Chair lift at the Masikryong Ski Resort. Image credit: Uri Tours, Jan. 28, 2014. CC SA 2.0.

Early on in his rule, Kim Jong-un made tourism a key aspect of his economic plan. With the ultimate goal of welcoming over two million foreign visitors by 2020 and increasing domestic tourism as well, Kim was looking forward to turning North Korea into a regional tourist destination – with all the cash tourists bring along with it. To help accomplish this, the government embarked on several high-profile construction projects.

The first was to continue work that began with Kim Jong-il, modernizing the Pyongyang-Sunan International Airport and adding a new terminal. The work, which began in 2011, carried on until 2015. The new terminal is six times larger than the old one, but tellingly, the airport’s fuel center was not enlarged. With only a few international flights into Pyongyang each week, exactly how and why thousands of new passengers would flock to the country remained unsolved.

To drive up interest in visiting the country, in 2013 Kim ordered the construction of the Masikryong Ski Resort. At a cost of $35 million and with a capacity to handle 70,000 visitors a year, it opened that same year and was North Korea’s first ski resort open to the general public. Two others had earlier been constructed in the Mt. Paektu region, but they were only available to the country’s elite and special guests.

Following Masikryong, a smaller ski facility was constructed in Kanggye-ri in 2017. The country’s oldest ski facility, in Samjiyon, was modernized in 2018 and another nearby facility that was constructed in 2001 (Pukphothae-san) was likewise renovated and may now be opened to a larger segment of the population; although, it hasn’t been mentioned by state media.


Waterparks were constructed in several major cities, with Pyongyang’s Munsu Waterpark boasting 14 waterslides spread out over 15 hectares. Kim Jong-un also oversaw the opening of the Rungra amusement park and directed the construction of numerous athletic facilities.

But perhaps the largest tourism-related project in the country’s history was the reconstruction of the Wonsan (Kalma) International Airport and the construction of the Wonsan Resort.

Converting the military-use Wonsan airport into a dual-use international airport for tourists and the air force began in 2013. The old 2,400-meter runway was replaced by two runways of 3,100 and 3,500 meters, and a modern terminal was constructed along with helicopter facilities.

The renovation cost between $150-200 million but its only major use thus far has been as the host airport for KPA Air Force airshows and to provide service to occasional passengers from intra-DPRK flights and government officials.

Kim Jong-un has taken a special interest in Wonsan as it’s home to his favorite seaside villa. Back in 2013 he expressed disappointment over the lack of recreational opportunities in the region and ordered that the area become a “world-class” tourism destination. These desires became the Wonsan-Kalma Tourist Zone.

Work along the beach didn’t begin until 2018 when nearly 5 km of beachfront property suddenly sprang to life all at once with construction equipment and workers. Kim has visited the area on multiple occasions and has offered specific criticism along the way. Trying to meet his demands added to the complexity of the project that was initially expected to open in April 2019. That deadline has been moved back several times and the resort, with its hotels, luxury inns, and condos capable of handling thousands of visitors a day is still not completed.


Somewhat more successful was the reconstruction of the city of Samjiyon. A major part of Kim’s tourism agenda from 2018-2020, modernizing Samjiyon and the whole Mt. Paektu region held added importance as the mountain is the mythical home of the Korean people and was the alleged headquarters of Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla army who fought against the Japanese during their occupation, and thus, it is the home North Korea’s independence.

The stated goal for the town’s reconstruction was to turn it into a “utopia town under socialism” as it is “the sacred place of the revolution”. The whole transportation corridor from Hyesan to Samjiyon was also modernized. Construction in other towns took place as well, with nearby Phothae also being rebuilt almost entirely. Over 40 km of road, 60 km of rail, and 10 train stations were either rebuilt or newly constructed, and new apartment blocks and houses were built in Wiyon, Junghung, Kasan-ri, Pochon, Thongnam, Poso, and other locales in the region.

Samjiyon and the surrounding villages have a population of 35,000-40,000. Nearly all of the homes have been rebuilt, along with schools, theaters, clinics, and farming facilities. A further thousand homes were reportedly constructed in 2021 as part of the ‘third phase’ of construction.

Kim Jong-un has visited the area at least ten times, underscoring its importance to the leadership. Like his father, he hasn’t indulged in building monuments to himself, but he must maintain the people’s loyalty. By constantly reminding citizens that he is Kim Il-sung’s descendant and that he is investing in the quasi-holy ground around Mt. Paektu, Kim bolsters his own legitimacy and personality cult.

Various proposals to turn the Mt. Paektu region into international biospheres and parks, such as a proposal to turn it into a UNESCO Global Geopark, have also been made over the years. What effect the recent changes to the area and increased population might have on these ideas is unknown, particularly as deforestation continues to threaten the existence of several endangered species that live in the area.


Aside from the international situation and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Kim’s plans to turn North Korea into a regional tourism hotspot may run into other more fundamental difficulties. After reviewing satellite imagery, as I wrote for NK News in 2019, I was unable to find adequate water treatment facilities. What little energy infrastructure has been built hardly seems enough for the proposed numbers of visitors during peaks months as well.

Access to Samjiyon is restricted to rail and road, with the risk of power outages interrupting the trip always a possibility. There are also no tour packages that would allow someone to only visit the beaches at Wonsan. If you don’t want to be driven around Pyongyang or visit the DMZ while also going to Wonsan, you’re out of luck.

Limitations on freedom of movement, difficulties in crafting a personalized itinerary, and the prospect of blackouts (or knowing that your waste may be being dumped into the sea), doesn’t make the country a good prospect for mass tourism, even if you solved all of the geopolitical and human rights issues.


Foreign tourism has never been a major contributor to the economy. Prior to the Trump administration's ban on US tourism to the country in 2019, it was estimated that only $5 million came from American visitors. To compare to another money-earning ‘enterprise’, in 2020 North Korean hackers stole nearly $400 million worth of cryptocurrencies.

Of course, after a series of high-profile arrests and the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, it became clear that American tourists weren’t the regime’s focus to begin with. And official media has said as much, with the government preferring to focus on drawing in tourists from China, South Korea, and other East Asian countries. However, the tourist destinations that had been completed in time, before COVID disrupted travel around the world, had managed to only moderately improve the numbers of visitors to North Korea with between 250,000 and 350,000 foreign guests making the trip in 2019 depending on the estimates used. Well below the 2 million tourists Kim had wanted by 2020.


Two areas that have improved due to the domestic tourism push have been hot springs spas and regional amusement parks.

In October 2019 residents began moving into a new hot springs complex that was constructed in Yangdok. Kim Jong-un has visited the site more than once, taking the opportunity to be photographed with bathing locals. Yangdok also includes a skiing facility, but that was closed down (along with most recreational facilities) in the wake of COVID-19. However, preparations to reopen Yangdok and Masikryong were being made in November 2021.

Efforts to renovate the elite hot springs at Onpho began in late 2018 following Kim Jong-un’s lamentation that the site was in “very bad condition, saying bathtubs for hot spring therapy are dirty, gloomy and unsanitary for their poor management.”

Although, it seems that economic crisis has slowed work on the site, and it has yet to be publicly opened again, even though it has long been a place where the country’s elite (and the Kim family) would visit.


As briefly mentioned above, waterparks and other recreational and leisure centers have popped up all over the country. I’ve located 17 soccer fields and stadiums just in Pyongyang that have been constructed or renovated in the last decade, at least 158 ‘Children’s Traffic Parks’ have been constructed since 2017 around the country, open-air theaters have been built in each provincial capital, and waterparks of varying sizes, from Haeju’s 38,000 sq. m. park to Kanggye’s at only around 5,200 sq. m., were also added in each province.

While not tourism in the traditional “let’s go have fun and see the sights” sense, places of pilgrimage geared toward a domestic audience have also seen some improvements. Select museums dedicated to “American atrocities” during the Korean War, like at Sinchon, and some locations dedicated to the Kim family have been modernized. Other improved sites span from the Mt. Paektu region to the International Friendship Exhibition.

On the other hand, North Korea has hundreds of ancient forts, temples, pavilions, and pagodas, exposure to which could enrich the lives of every North Korean (and even help the regime’s propaganda), but most remain out of sight or ignored, left to decay into nothing as the sites promoted by the government are still heavily focused on modern propaganda.


Flood Recovery & Afforestation Efforts

Flooding is a perennial problem in North Korea, creating both losses of life and loss of harvests. The country has experienced several severe floods in recent years that together have affected the majority of the country, from the city of Sariwon in the south to Hoeryong in the far northeast.

North Korea’s proactive flood mitigation efforts have largely been pinned on the construction of dams to hold back rivers, but heavy rainfall and narrow river valleys often negate or overwhelm these measures. Dikes and levees have also been notoriously weak, leaving thousands of people and thousands of hectares at risk each year. But it seems that the government is finally taking flooding much more seriously.

For example, the town of Yonsa has experienced two major floods since 2016. After the first one, the riverbanks were washed away taking houses and the local stadium site with the floodwaters. New houses and levees were built but then another flood in 2020 erased the levees and knocked out a bridge.

This 2020 flood was part of a year that saw three typhoons affect the country. Following the flooding, Kim Jong-un began touring the sites from farming villages along the Chaeryong River in North Hwanghae Province to Komdok in the country’s north.

These visits gave Kim the appearance of being a hands-on leader who cared about getting people’s lives back together.

The result, hundreds of new homes were constructed in North Hwanghae and around 2,300 were rebuilt in Komdok (which is now in the process of being totally reconstructed and turned into a more modern mining region).

Flood-related construction can also be seen in Musan, home to the country’s largest iron mine, in Hoeryong (which also suffered heavily during the 2016 flood), Komusan, and up and down the valleys of the Hamgyong provinces. Within North Hwanghae, housing in the small villages around Myosong, Jithap, and Taechong was rebuilt, and a new neighborhood was constructed in Unpha.

It will take another typhoon or flooding event to know if the kilometers of new levees will hold and if the thousands of new homes can stand up to the weather, but 2020 certainly initiated a large number of construction programs in even some of the smallest towns in the country.

Map of deforested areas (red) from 2000-2015. Cropped image from: “Spatiotemporal Patterns of Forest Changes in Korean Peninsula Using Landsat Images During 1990–2015: A Comparative Study of Two Neighboring Countries”, by Dong, Ren, Wang, Q. Yu, Zhu, H. Yu, and Bao. IEEE Access, May 1, 2020. CC 4.0

Flooding isn't the cause of deforestation, but afforestation can certainly help with flooding. The country has struggled with deforestation since the famine and as wood stoves and heating stand in for electricity shortages, and Kim Jong-un has directed several policies toward addressing the issue.

Denuded hillsides can’t absorb as much water and contribute to flooding as well as soil degradation, which makes agriculture more difficult, so planting trees is an integral part of both flood control and increasing crop yields without having to spend huge sums of money.

In 2012 Kim wrote a policy paper “On the revolutionary switch in land management” which discussed forest management and the need for major afforestation efforts. This was followed by a two-day conference on deforestation and soil health in 2013 which dozens of North Korean scientists attended.

These events culminated in the “10-year plan of Forest Restoration” that runs from 2015 to 2024.

He also declared “war” against deforestation and in 2015 North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong told the United Nations that the country aimed to decrease its CO2 emissions by 37%. While it’s unlikely that North Korea’s carbon footprint has declined much (outside of the effects of COVID on the economy), Kim Jong-un has ordered the construction of several tree nurseries and the renovation of forest management stations to combat deforestation.

Afterward, large tree nurseries began to pop up all over the country. They can be found in Kanggye, Rason, Sariwon, Heaju, Pyongyang, Kangdong, Sinuiju, Jungphyong, Wonsan, and Hamhung. Improvements to many of the country’s smaller forestry management stations can also be seen.

In total, Kim’s war on deforestation envisions over a million hectares of new forests with tens of millions of saplings being grown at any given time. To underscore the state’s seriousness, he has visited several of the new nurseries in person.

This initiative faces major odds, however. Around 30% of forest cover was lost between 1990 and 2010 and around 15,000 hectares are further lost each year. Between slash-and-burn agriculture, forest fires, droughts, and damaging insect infestations, just halting deforestation will become a major accomplishment if successful.


Powering the Country

North Korea has never had an abundance of electricity, but it had enough to meet its basic needs up until the 1970s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc, North Korea was no longer able to get coal and heavy fuel oil at discounted prices. Additionally, the country lacked the capacity to repair or replace parts in their aging power plants and struggled to keep up with rising energy needs through hydroelectricity.

Compounding the problem is the fact that much of the energy grid infrastructure and design is now 40+ years old. Energy loss through leaks and inefficient designs can cost North Korea up to 30% of its electricity.

The government has made some attempts at increasing generation through traditional thermal power plants, though, Pyongyang’s central plant is far too old to simply be repaired and the country would need considerable foreign assistance to modernize the plant.

Begun under Kim Jong-il in 2010-2011 the Kangdong Thermal Plant was supposed to supply the capital with between 200 and 300 MW of coal-powered electricity. Construction work proceeded after Kim Jong-un took over and by 2013, the cooling tower was being raised and ten apartment buildings for workers and their families were in various states of construction. Work stalled out by 2014, however, and quickly came to an end. Some work finally resumed ca. 2019/2020 and the structural supports for two boilers can now be seen, but the plant is still far from being completed.

Between 2015 and 2018, two new generating units were added to the Pukchang Thermal Plant, which provides energy to the country’s only aluminum plant and is the country’s largest thermal power plant. The completion date is speculated to have been moved up in response to Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s speech in which he called on the country to “drastically increase thermal power generation”. The expansion added 400 MW of electricity capacity when working at full efficiency.

Additionally, the power plant in Songbon, which had relied on fuel oil, was converted into a typical coal-fired power plant, as the country’s supply of petroleum has been squeezed. Work on the conversion appears to have been completed in 2020.

However, these improvements to fossil fuel power plants haven’t been enough to put an end to blackouts. Lacking the domestic capability to build new fossil fuel power plants, energy policy under Kim Jong-un has instead focused on hydroelectricity and it has slowly begun to look toward solar and wind power as well.

The unreliability of hydroelectricity in North Korea has been an ongoing problem, as droughts are common and water levels can fall below what is needed to turn the turbines. Many of the major dams in the country were also constructed in the early 20th century and are aging, producing less electricity in the process.

To help overcome these problems, dozens of small and medium-sized hydroelectric generators have been constructed in the last decade, and there’s also been a renewed push to install micro-generators in the numerous small streams that cover the country. These micro-generators are only enough to power a house or two but they can be used to run local grain mills or keep the lights on in the local clinic, helping to bring at least some electricity to the smallest communities.

On the larger side of things, the Huichon Dam was finally completed under Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-il’s anger over years of delays and problems with the dam is one theory as to what caused his heart attack in 2011.

Huichon is the first dam in a series of hydroelectric dams that run along the Chongchon River. Over the course of 65 km, there are twelve dams – eleven were built under Kim Jong-un. Between the main dam and the other smaller ones, the installed generating capacity reaches 400-500 MW, enough to theoretically power almost half a million homes in ideal circumstances. But problems at Huichon continue and with fluctuating water levels, it’s likely the entire system operates at less than 75% capacity.

Other important hydroelectric projects include the Orangchon-Phalhyang Hydroelectric Dam that was completed in 2019 after twenty years of construction, the building of two dams along the Chungman River (in Usi County), the Wonsan Army-People hydroelectric project, and the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Stations – all being completed or initiated by Kim.

The last hydroelectric project I’ll mention is Tanchon. Planning to squeeze electricity out of the Hochon River system in Ryanggang Province dates back to a Japanese plan for the area beginning in 1925. North Korea’s own plans were envisioned by Kim Il-sung, but it wasn’t until 2016 when work began on what is the largest hydroelectric project in the country’s history.

It involves a 60-km-long tunnel that carries water out of the Samsu Reservoir, south (against the direction of the river) to a hydroelectric station in the Worker’s District of Sinhung in South Hamgyong Province. COVID has delayed its completion and only moderate progress has been made since 2019.


North Korea has experimented with wind and solar for decades, but only ever at small scales. And while the price of solar panels fell and citizens began to use them on their own, the government was still slow to adopt the new technologies. That’s changed somewhat in the last decade.

Although there still hasn’t been any large-scale production of wind or solar, several small facilities have been constructed and microturbines can be seen at several collective farms. Additionally, North Korean firms have begun to manufacture the turbines domestically instead of relying solely on importing them from China.

Today, experts place solar at providing less than 1% of the nation’s total energy, yet, upwards of 55% of North Korean households rely on solar energy at some level, either using it to power their entire home or by having small panels just to charge cell phones or single appliances. The government has also been adding larger panels to new construction projects and residential towers. These panels can easily be spotted in satellite imagery.

Wind and solar may not yet be enabling factories to run, but they are democratizing electricity in a way that hadn’t existed in the country before. With photovoltaic panels available in the markets, people whose neighborhoods aren’t even connected to the national grid can now keep a light on at night or help their local school run its equipment, all without relying on the central government.

Pyongyang’s Construction Boom

Major areas of new construction and renovation under Kim Jong-un. Image: AccessDPRK.com

Modern Pyongyang has been referred to as Pyongyang 3.0 not only because there’s a third Kim in charge, but because it has gone through three distinct periods of construction and urbanization.

Kim Il-sung’s Pyongyang was the rebuilt showcase capital born out of war. Kim Jong-il’s Pyongyang was crowned by the abandoned Ryugyong Hotel and became a city frozen in time. With few modernization programs, it still stressed the “‘monumentality’ and the reification of state ideology” with little regard for the practical needs of the population.

The city’s main urban area grew from 70 sq. km. in 1984 to over 103 sq. km. by 2017, but the most impressive changes that have occurred involve the mix and density of new buildings in the last decade, not merely outward suburbanization which is something that remains a slow and organized process due to existing administrative barriers.

The skyline of Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang would be all but unrecognizable to denizens from the 1960s and 70s. During his rule, he has preferred to embark on the monumental, not to the state, but in providing monumental housing projects, monumental recreational facilities, and monumental economic/industrial construction – setting his legitimacy not only in the completion of the country’s nuclear forces but in raising living standards and attempting to pull the country out of the economic quagmire that arose in the 1990s.

A number of housing projects had been initiated under Kim Jong-il, particularly in the Rakrang District on the southern bank of the Taedong River and in Hyongjesan to the north of downtown. These projects involved dozens of buildings and thousands of housing units but were left incomplete. Construction has carried on through the first decade of Kim Jong-un’s rule and they have become part of his ‘grand plan’ to construct over 66,000 new housing units in the capital by 2025. This figure includes 16,000 that were already under construction at the time of his March 2021 announcement and a further 50,000 to be built in several large sections throughout the city.

These new housing projects include a section of high-rise apartments in the Sadong District, new apartments in the Mansu District where the International Taekwondo Federation Headquarters used to be located, and there are plans for more housing in the Mangyongdae District.

As seen in the image above, there have also been numerous individual apartment buildings added in various places along with new factories, schools, and other facilities.

Two other major housing projects that were completed were the Mirae Future Scientists Street along the Taedong River and the Ryomyong New Town. Mirae involved construction along 1.2 km of Mirae Street and consists of some of the tallest buildings in the country including the famous Unha Tower. Completed in 2014, the development consists of 2,500 apartment units for scientists, students, and staff from the Kim Chaek University of Technology.

Following Mirae was the 2017 opening of the Ryomyong New Town. This redevelopment of land along Ryomyong Street by Kim Il-sung University saw the construction of 40 new apartment buildings and the renovation of a further 67 existing buildings of different types. The 2 km-long development stretches from the giant Tower of Immortality to just before the Kamsusan Palace of the Sun.

Kim Il-sung University has also been undergoing an expansion that began in 2014 and has yet to be completed.

A major criticism, however, of these projects has been the speed at which they were constructed. The tallest occupied building in North Korea is the Ryomyong Condominium Building No. 1 which reaches 82 stories. It was built in less than 3 months. Critics note that in the rest of the world, to safely and properly construct a building that tall it would take around 2 years.

Building collapses are not unknown in Pyongyang and land subsidence, a direct hit from a typhoon, or an earthquake could one day topple many of the buildings.

Additionally, with power outages still a recurring event, elevators can be a dangerous proposition, leaving the top floors in many Pyongyang buildings unoccupied or used by the lowest-ranking citizens in the capital. The lack of water pressure and fire suppression systems as a result of energy shortages also makes the higher floors undesirable.

As with all other major towns in the country, a new orphanage was constructed in 2014, the city’s amphitheater was renovated, and multiple soccer fields and stadiums have either been constructed or modernized. In the last decade, the Sunan International Airport was modernized, at least four medical facilities have also been built in Pyongyang, a new civilian airstrip was built along with a VIP heliport, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the Korean Revolution Museum were both enlarged, the Pyongyang Zoo was modernized, and there has been a wide range of factories and workshops constructed covering well over 730,000 sq. meters combined.


Updating the Provinces

While Pyongyang did see some new construction under Kim Jong-il, particularly in the last few years of his life, the rest of the country was largely left behind. Under Kim Jong-un, numerous towns and cities of all sizes have experienced some level of modernization and expansion.

Whether in an attempt to prove the successes of the Byungjin Line policy on the national economy or because the government recognized that there was a very real need for modern housing and other facilities throughout the country, dozens of population centers have benefited from new construction.

The cities of Sinuiju, Hwangju, Hamhung, Rason, Kanggye, Nampo, Pyongsong, Sariwon, Kosan, Wonsan, Chongjin, Haeju, and most recently, the Komdok mining region have all seen multiple construction projects ranging from renovating their downtown areas to enlarging factories and building new recreational facilities.

A few specific examples:

Komdok is currently in the middle of being reconstructed almost entirely, with 25,000 new homes planned by 2025 to turn Komdok into “the world’s best mining town”. This is being accomplished through the use of so-called “soldier builders,” who are merely members of the armed forces conscripted into civilian construction projects as a source of free labor – a very common practice in the country.

Sariwon has seen renovations of its downtown area, at least 20 mid-rise apartment buildings have been built, and nearly 13 hectares in the city’s west now hosts nurseries, schools, and recreational facilities.

Like Sariwon, Kanggye is another provincial capital that has seen substantial construction. Its stadium is being renovated, a plaza was added in front of the People’s Palace of Culture, at least 25 new apartment buildings have been constructed, three hydroelectric dams have been built downriver, and as mentioned in the tourism section, Kanggye has a small ski resort and waterpark.


Outside of city facelifts, relatively large housing projects have been constructed in Bukchang, Yongbyon, Paekun, Yomju, Tongrim, Chollima, Chunghwa, Songchon, Pyongsan, Hwadae, Tongchon, and Ongjin, just to name a few. Of the examples listed, these residences provide space for as many as 8,200 families.

Children’s nurseries, orphanages, and new schools have been built in each provincial capital. Additionally, the Ministry of Public Health announced as part of their 2016-2020 plan to modernize 200 local hospitals outside of Pyongyang. As many local clinics haven’t been positively identified via satellite, it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not the government has been successful at this, particularly if the changes were all on the interior (new equipment, basic building maintenance, etc.), but we do know that the South Hamgyong Provincial Hospital in Hamhung recently underwent renovations, as did hospitals/clinics in at least Kanggye, Jasong, Samjiyon, in the village of Hunggyesu, Sariwon, Songnim, Nampo, and Haeju.


Agriculture and Land Reclamation

During the Communist Bloc era, North Korea could rely on ‘friendship prices’ for just about everything and never managed to develop food independence. Since then, Pyongyang has received nearly a billion dollars worth of food aid from the United States alone since 1995 and it is in greater need today than it has been in several years.

Famine, droughts, floods, and huge levels of mismanagement have all plagued the country’s ability to feed itself. Yet, despite the oft-quoted fact that North Korea only has 17% arable land, it actually has 46% more land dedicated to agriculture than South Korea and yet still produces substantially less food.

It’s within this context and with the memory of famine and belt-tightening that Kim Jong-un came to power proclaiming in 2012 that he would banish hunger once and for all through a ‘scientific approach' to agriculture and by going after corrupt officials.

Fast forward to 2021 and the government tacitly admits it’s failed, telling the people to tighten their belts once again and to be prepared to endure hunger until at least 2025. Although the government is blaming the situation on COVID, North Korea has needed to import food every year under Kim Jong-un and received international food assistance most years.

As such, the food supply has featured heavily in Kim Jong-un’s speeches and policy announcements. And indeed, many changes have been seen. From policy changes allowing farmers to sell more of their surplus produce to letting people have much larger “kitchen gardens”. And while these changes may have had a measurable impact in certain years, it’s clear they haven’t been enough.

In concert with policy changes, Kim has also embarked on several high-profile construction projects aimed at improving food supplies.

The Jangchon Vegetable Farm in Pyongyang has grown substantially since 2013 and is touted as being “a standard of the socialist rural cultural construction”. And in what may be the largest single agricultural project of Kim Jong-un’s rule was the development of the Sepho Tableland. With projects spread across 30 sq. km. the development involved everything from improving livestock grazing and production to increasing crop yields in the area.

Another giant project that has continued to be developed is the enlargement of the Kosan Combined Fruit Farm in Kangwon. The fruit farm occupies more than 3,400 hectares, with hundreds of homes constructed throughout the plain, and was redeveloped to allow for mechanized harvesting. And then there’s the Taedonggang Fruit Farm in Pyongyang that extends for 9 km along the Taedong River.

On the other side of the country, the Jungphyong Vegetable Greenhouse Farm and Tree Nursery was constructed from 2018 to 2020. The 130 hectares worth of greenhouses are meant to provide food during the winter to Chongjin and the surrounding area.

Other large farms have that either been constructed or enlarged during his rule can be found in Rason, Hamhung, Samjiyon, and in Wonsan, where a full 1,000 hectares are currently being converted into greenhouses and related facilities across from the Wonsan Villa. In 2018 there were also 430 hectares of land brought back into cultivation in Mubong, Ryanggang to increase the production of potatoes, one of the regime’s most extolled crops.

And most recently, another large vegetable farm was announced, this time at Ryonpho south of Hamhung. The 100-hectare site will be constructed on the site of another airfield, as was the case with Jungphyong.

However, despite the creation of large ‘modern’ farms and regional experimentations with letting farmers have full control over small plots, food production has still fluctuated year-to-year, as natural disasters and weather changes still play a far greater role in food production than the state’s attempts to control the situation.


Beyond trying to boost crops, efforts into livestock have also been made.

As mentioned above, the work at Sepho partially dealt with grazing lands and around half a dozen livestock centers were constructed in the process. Existing poultry farms in Sijuiju and Kusong were remodeled and a new large poultry farm was constructed south of Pyongyang in 2019-2020 at Kwangchon.

In terms of other animals, the Phyongbuk Pig Farm was remodeled in 2020 and in 2021 a new black swan hatchery was established at the Kwangpho Duck Farm in Chongpyong. Fish farms are also an important source of protein, with over 60,000 tons produced each year between fresh and saltwater species.

Several examples of fish farms built in the last decade include the Ongjin Coastal Fish Farm which has been increasingly developed over time and encompasses nearly 3 sq. km, the Monggon Fish Farm was built in 2018, Paechon Fish Farm No. 2 was established in 2017-18, a medium-sized facility was constructed in Hungdok in 2016-17, and others in Hwanggok and Muggye were built in 2016.

Existing fish farms have also been expanded or had improvements made to their facilities such as the Sokmak Salmon Farm, Songdo fish farm in Kaesong, the 22-hectare Poman fish farm, and the Samchon Catfish Farm which can produce 3,000 tons a year.


Since the period of Japanese occupation through to today, over 850 sq. km. of land in northern Korea has been reclaimed, either through passive reclamation (letting enclosed areas silt up) or through actively filling tidal flats and river deltas. The state of North Korea took up this process after independence and has laid out multiple ambitious reclamation plans over the decades.

The new areas can be used for everything from rice paddies to salterns to aquaculture (sheltered fish farming) and are intended to make up for the lack of arable land in the country.

Under Kim Jong-un, dozens of plots, large and small, have been walled off from the sea and older projects begun by his predecessors such as the Ryongmae Island Project and Taegye Island Reclamation Project have been allowed to progress. The total area of the new sites, once completed, will add over 160 sq. km. of territory. Kim has said that he wants to add a total of 3,000 sq. km. of reclaimed land. In order to do this, however, the country will have to destroy several whole habitats: tidal flats, marsh and reed lands, and inter-island zones.

Marginal lands behind the West Sea Barrage and within the Kangryŏng Reservoir that was created after the Kangryŏng Bay was dammed in 1984-87 have slowly been turned into farmland, while some of the newer projects begun by Kim Jong-un are so large that they’ll forever change the coastline of the country and can be seen from space.

According to 38 North, twelve major reclamation projects are ongoing, with some having been initiated before Kim Jong-un’s ascent. Some of the ones that were started entirely by Kim Jong-un include projects around Sohae which encompass ~33 sq. km., one near Kwaksan that will encompass 7.2 sq. km., and another between Sinmi Island and Ansan that encompasses over 64 sq. km called the Honggondo Tideland Reclamation Project.

With rising sea levels, it’s unclear what efforts in design and construction have been made to prevent saltwater infiltration and to deal with additional erosion. It’s also unclear if the country will reap more benefits from rice production than they might have through fishing, shellfish production, and other activities had the reclaimed areas been left as tideland and marshes.



New electric locomotive model by the Kim Jong Thae Electric Locomotive Complex. Image source: Rodong Sinmun, October 2020.

Adequate and modern transportation infrastructure has been lacking for decades. Although North Korea has 7,435 km of railway and 25,554 km of roads, the physical tracks and ties are decades old and most of the railcars are over 30 years old. A lack of sufficient electricity also means that a two-day railway trip using diesel locomotives could take 10 days using electric locomotives, which make up the bulk of North Korean railways, as prolonged electricity cuts can be common.

Efforts have been made to modernize the railcar fleet, with a new electric locomotive design being introduced in 2020, but most of the rail lines and rolling stock remain dated and in need of considerable repair.

The country’s road network is another matter. The lack of paved roads (less than 3% of the total) and winding mountain routes was chosen on purpose by Kim Il-sung to slow any invasion in the event of a second Korean War. Select roads and highways continue to be repaired as needed, particularly within Pyongyang, but new road construction has been rather limited, with major highway projects connecting Wonsan to Hamhung (began in 2012) and Hyangsan to Huichon having been abandoned.

Although Pyongyang is still seeking Chinese and Russian investment in new road construction, there has yet to be any progress on the ground despite various agreements signed years ago with the exception of the New Yalu River Bridge which I discuss later on.


However, considerable effort has gone into enlarging and modernizing the country’s main port facilities. As North Korea’s limited foreign trade and fishing fleet are major lifelines, the aging ports needed a facelift to facilitate both legal and illegal trade.

As the country’s primary port, Nampo’s port and oil facilities, in particular, have undergone major improvements.

Constructed on the former site of the Nampo Smeltery, a container port was added in the early 2000s and was later enlarged in 2011-13 to cover 21.3 hectares. A container gantry crane was added in 2019. A small ship repair facility was also built nearby, opening in 2015.

Of larger concern to international sanctions, Nampo’s oil and coal terminals have undergone improvements as well.

North Korea is prohibited from exporting coal yet managed to earn as much as $410 million from coal exports in 2020. Several vessels were also noted to be docking at the coal terminal that year which had seen the construction of a new covered coal bay in 2016.

Nampo’s oil storage capacity has grown considerably. Two new facilities have been constructed since 2016 and 14 new petrochemical storage tanks have been built since 2011, dispersed among the several oil facilities around the city. Foundations for a further 12 tanks also exist.

Many of the tanks are around 23 meters in diameter. If we assume that all 14 new tanks average out to 23 meters in diameter and are a conservative 10 meters tall, that gives an added maximum capacity of 29 million liters of oil. In other words, Nampo alone has added over 187,600 barrels in additional storage capacity under Kim Jong-un.

Other ports and harbors around the country have likewise seen modernization efforts. At Chongjin, the country’s largest fishing harbor, three new storage tanks have been constructed and several buildings within the shipyard, manufacture, and repair complex were completely remodeled beginning in 2018.

The ports and harbors at Changjon, Tongchon, Rangsong-ri, and Muchon-Koam have all seen improvements. At Tanchon, an entirely new harbor was constructed from 2010 to 2012 and has been well maintained ever since. Then there are the facilities in Rason (Rajin-Sonbong) which have undergone small but continual work ever since the creation of the Rason Special Economic Zone in the 1990s.


North Korea has 19 road and rail connections with its neighbors. Under Kim Jong-un, ten of them have been modernized and their capacities expanded. The freight regauging yard at the Tumangang Station connecting North Korea and Russia has been in the process of being upgraded, and construction on new customs facilities began back in 2017.

In a process that took a decade to complete, the Wonchong border crossing with China (just up the river from Tumangang) was constructed and provides a 4-lane bridge connection.

The Namyang-Tumen border crossing was completed in 2020 as part of a project that also saw 42 apartment buildings built.

New or enlarged customs facilities have also been constructed at Sambong, Hoeryong, Hyesan, Chunggang, and Manpo. And an entirely new overland border crossing was constructed north of Samjiyon. The single-lane road cuts through the forests before hitting the Chinese border and was established in 2014; although, it is not a regular commercial border crossing and seems to have limited use.

However, North Korea’s most symbolic cross-border connection, the New Yalu River Bridge, still has yet to be opened.

Construction of the newest official Sino-DPRK crossing point began in 2011 and is estimated to have cost $350 million, but due to multiple delays and eventually COVID, the opening has been postponed for years. The bridge wasn’t even connected to the country’s road system until 2021 and none of the customs facilities have been constructed.


Mass transit upgrades have also been made in Pyongyang specifically. New subway cars have been introduced and the city has slowly been updating its tram and bus fleet, as some buses from the 1970s can still be found traversing the streets.

Between 44 and 100 Chollima-321 trollies have been manufactured since the refurbishment of the Pyongyang Trolley Bus Factory in 2018 (after getting Kim’s personal approval). Twenty were sent to Wonsan to improve inter-city transportation in anticipation of greater traffic due to the Wonsan Resort, but the majority remain in use in the capital.

And most recently, the city is in the process of building its first subway extension since the primary lines were completed in the 1970s. Based on the visible tunnel excavation points, the subway extension will run for approximately 3.5 km from the current Kwangbok Station to a new station that will be located somewhere near the Mangyongdae Children's Palace. Although planning for the extension goes back many years, active construction along the whole line wasn’t occurring until 2019 and continues through to today.


Lastly, a former 30 km-long railway segment from Hyangsan to Unsal is in the process of being reconstructed along with at least one new train station. The line had been decommissioned in the 1990s. This is the longest segment of railway that I am aware of that has either been recommissioned or completely overhauled other than the Hyesan to Samjiyon line.



Whether they’re prestige mega-projects or simply new housing to keep up with population growth, construction has been a major theme throughout Kim Jong-un’s first decade.

Over 100,000 housing units have either been constructed or are planned nationwide. Provincial theaters, orphanages, and tree nurseries have popped up with regularity. And, of course, the regime has spent countless millions on military construction as well.

Some of these projects have had real impacts on the people’s lives and fulfills part of the state’s pledge to build a nation for the people. Whether it’s housing, recreation, or water purification sites, one cannot argue that there hasn’t been some improvement. However, Pyongyang continues to misallocate millions on tourist projects that will never draw in millions of visitors and on projects that only have propaganda value, that only serves to divert money away from much more needed infrastructure projects like updating the national power grid or improving water quality.

And despite what could be a billion-dollar construction spree over the last decade, many of the projects appear to be superficial and will have little real impact on the economy so long as North Korea continues to isolate itself and arrest foreigners for things that wouldn’t be criminal in the rest of the world.

At $40 a ticket, most North Koreans can’t afford to go skiing. With precious few international flights to Pyongyang, there’s yet to be a substantial uptick in the number of tourists. And even all of the residential construction comes with caveats. Elevators don’t always work, and water can’t be pumped up to the top floors of the tallest buildings rendering those floors uninhabitable. The lack of electricity also affects everything from mass transit to the ability of hospitals to perform their services.

COVID-19 also set several projects behind from the Wonsan Resort to the Tanchon Hydroelectric Project, hampering associated developments and preventing additional electricity capacity from coming online.

And so, while projects have proliferated to every corner of the country, it is difficult to assess their real impact in this current climate, recalling that other prestige projects in the past actually helped to plunge the country into economic collapse instead of helping.


~ ~ ~ ~


I have scheduled this project to run through to the end of the year, with a new article coming out roughly every 10 days or so. If you would like to support the project and help me with research costs, please consider supporting AccessDPRK on Patreon. Those supporters donating $15 or more each month will be entitled to a final PDF version of all the articles together that will also have additional information included once the series is finished. They will also receive a Google Earth map related to the events in the series, and can get access to the underlying data behind the supplemental reports.

Supporters at other levels will be sent each new article a day before it’s published and will also receive a mention as seen below.


I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters: Amanda O., GreatPoppo, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, and Russ Johnson.

--Jacob Bogle, 2/1/2022


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