Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Post-COVID Update - Onpho and Tanchon

With internal pandemic restrictions slowly now lifting and international trade beginning to resume (albeit still at much reduced levels), some projects that had been stalled as a result of COVID and the government's anti-pandemic policies appear to be making progress once again.

Here are two projects where measurable progress has been made.

Onpho Holiday Camp

After visiting the Onpho Holiday Camp and Hot Springs (41.656463° 129.526877°) in July 2018, Kim Jong Un criticized the facility for being rundown and ordered that it be modernized immediately. Onpho has a long history, dating back to before the founding of the DPRK, and had served as a getaway for the country's elite for generations (including being visited by Kim Il Sung), which explains Kim Jong Un's anger at the state of the complex and his rush to modernize it.

Construction work began almost immediately after his visit, but economic factors began to be a drag on progress. Coupled with the pandemic, there was almost no headway made through all of 2020. And, indeed, after the August 2020 AccessDPRK report on the site, there was little more to tell - with only marginal progress being noted in 2021 and 2022.

Construction progress as of November 2020 with several new dorms under construction as well as a number of other buildings. 

By 2022, all buildings had additional progress made but remained unfinished.

By 2023, some of the roofs had been put in place and the museum complex appears completed, but the three large, new buildings were still unfinished.

However, by September 2023, the exteriors of the three large buildings had all been completed four years after construction first began on them.

Onpho as of Sept. 14, 2023 showing that the exteriors of most buildings have been completed.

As mentioned earlier, Onpho caters to the country's elite. Located just a kilometer away, the complex contains at least eight villas of different sizes to accommodate important politicians, military leaders, and even Kim Jong Un should he visit again. However, the renovations to the holiday camp do not seem to have extended to this residential area.

While there hasn't been any official word as to when Onpho will reopen, the Yangdok Hot Springs (which underwent its own renovations from 2018-2019) reopened this summer after three years of closure due to COVID. But with the progression seen between June and September 2023 (the most in any three-month period since 2019), Onpho may finally be able to reopen next year unless there's another slow down.

Tanchon Hydroelectric Project

Path of the Tanchon hydroelectric tunnel and environs.

Plans to harvest energy from the Hochon River date back a century, but this latest endeavor began in 2017. With 60 km of tunnels, it's the largest hydroelectric project currently underway in North Korea. 

However, material shortages are a perennial problem on major projects in the country, and, made worse by the pandemic and border closures, the Tanchon Hydroelectric Project (40.787244° 128.444679°) still remains unfinished after six years. 

There was little noticeable progress made in 2022, but in the most recent Google Earth imagery, not only can progress be seen on the large penstocks, but crowds of workers are identifiable as well.  

Status of the Tanchon Hydroelectric Project as of Sept. 7, 2023.

If the penstocks are the final piece to the project (meaning that the generators are already in place), then Tanchon could come online in 2024, providing several megawatts of electricity to this key mining region. However, if North Korea hasn't managed to import or manufacture the complex turbine blades and generator components, then Tanchon may continue to sit idle for an indefinite period of time.

Despite the headway made at these two sites, there are still several others where no noticeable progress has been made, including on the Pyongyang General Hospital and the Wonsan Resort. The primary construction at both sites was completed over a year ago, but the government has not been able to acquire the necessary medical equipment and resort furnishings, leaving the sites as visible reminders of the government's overall inability to meet its own deadlines on some of its most publicized projects. 

I would like to thank my current Patreon supporters who help make all of this possible: Alex Kleinman, Amanda Oh, Donald Pierce, Dylan D, Joe Bishop-Henchman, Jonathan J, Joel Parish, John Pike, Kbechs87, Russ Johnson, and Squadfan.

--Jacob Bogle, 11/20/2023

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