Regime’s large resorts benefit a few

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Regime’s large resorts benefit a few

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, watches over the preparation of a grilled dish at a restaurant in April 2013 in the Haedanghwa Health Complex with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, right, and his late uncle Jang Song-thaek, second to his left. The multi-purpose building houses restaurants and a shopping center. [Rodong Sinmun]

On the front page of North Korea’s official newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, last month, leader Kim Jong-un stands with a broad smile across his face in front of the newly built Songdowon International Children’s Camp in Wonsan, an eastern coastal city known in the country as a summer tourist destination.

According to the publication, Kim expressed his satisfaction with the remodeled camp site, aimed at promoting North Korea’s Communist propaganda to young students.

“All the facilities and buildings at the site are suitable for the dignity of our socialist, civilized country, in terms of size, form and content,” he was quoted as saying.

His praise of the site’s size was notable. According to an analysis by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, construction is assumed to be ongoing in at least 18 areas in other cities, including Pyongyang.

However, North Korea’s obsession with development and large infrastructure is evidenced, in particular, by the Masikryong Ski Resort. As supreme commander, Kim Jong-un dispatched troops from the North Korean Army’s 5th Corps to the site in Munchon, Kangwon Province, and ordered them to complete construction on the resort - equipped with 12 slopes - in mere months, just before the winter season. Building continued even at night via flashlights, and North Koreans humorously referred to the rapid construction as “Masikryong speed.” Work on the mountain ski resort was completed in December, according to the Rodong Sinmun.

That same month, the Munsu Water Park also opened in Pyongyang.

Yet the problem with the North Korean economy does not necessarily lie in its obsession for large-scale construction, as much as the fact that those installations have not improved the dire living conditions of the North Korean people, most of whom are malnourished and starving.

According to “The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism” by Janos Kornai, the establishment of large infrastructure or statues that glamorize leaders is one of the inherent characteristics of a socialist system that leads to inefficiency in production and growth, along with its priority on the war industry and heavy industry.

“Those in charge of the economy are often attracted to the big, and even more to the vast,” Kornai writes. “Often a veritable ‘cult of scale’ and gigantomania emerges.

“… In the forced growth process often giant firms and institutions appear where several medium-sized or even small units would be more efficient,” he continues. “One can certainly say an indiscriminate preference for establishing larger units does not contribute to the fast rate of growth.”

But in addition to being large, Kim’s ambitious leisure resorts are also inaccessible or altogether useless to the majority of his countrymen - those who are outside the capital’s elite. In November 2012, state media reported that Kim Jong-un visited a horse-riding club located in an army unit in Pyongyang. After showing off his riding abilities, he ordered authorities to open the club to the public, stating that riding was good for the people’s health.

A mini golf course, the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, was also built in July 2012 on his direct orders.

In the South, horseback riding, skiing and golf are regarded as exclusive sports due to their high costs. In 2012, North Korea’s gross national income per capita stood at 1.37 million South Korean won, or $1,327 - about one-nineteenth of South Korea’s at 25.59 million won.

In this sense, Kim’s prized sports centers and resorts are reserved only for the privileged few, estimated to be just two million out of the total population of 24 million.

Perhaps ironically, the young leader pledged in his first public speech in April 2012 that he would “never let people tighten their belts [because of hunger] … [They will] enjoy the prosperity of socialism.”

But it has now been two years since that address and North Korea has not changed.

The following year, he called for a “two-track strategy of economic policy and a nuclear weapons program.” Pyongyang claims it currently has a nuclear weapon, which enables the government to use its remaining military budget on boosting the economy.

This situation is different from Kim’s ambitions, however, and likely done out of necessity. At North Korea’s parliamentary meeting on April 9, 2013, in Pyongyang, the domestic annual allotment for national defense accounted for 16 percent of the entire budget, and only dropped by 0.1 percent this year. And despite the state’s ailing economy, analysts are specifically curious as to why Kim is so bent on building large, impractical infrastructure. One theory is that his time studying in Switzerland had a profound impact on the young strongman. The Alps, one of Europe’s greatest mountain ranges, as well as the Alpamare Waterslide, the continent’s biggest indoor water park, are both located there. Officials also found that in one of the newly built modern supermarkets in Pyongyang, where Kim once visited, most of the chocolates available were Swiss-made.

Yet there appears to be a sharp divide between his dreams and reality. When he visited the Mangyongdae Funfair in May 2012 in Pyongyang, he scolded officials upon discovering that the amusement park was overrun with weeds and even pulled some of them out himself.

His goal of importing European facilities into the Masikryong Sky Resort was also hampered by UN sanctions. As a result, most of the resort’s equipment and facilities are rusty and dilapidated. His frustrations were perhaps noticeable when Kim was photographed smoking a cigarette on a ski lift in January at the resort’s opening ceremony.

Though at the moment, there appears to be no one in North Korea who is capable of dissuading him from continuing to follow through on his grand plans, and he has few close kin around him. Jang Song-thaek, his influential uncle and one-time guardian, was executed for treason in December, and his aunt, Jang’s wife, has also since been shunned from North Korea’s political inner circle.

Ma Won-chun, a deputy director of the Financial Planning Department under the ruling Workers’ Party, is allegedly considered a rising star under the young leader’s rule and frequently accompanies him at construction sites and on “guidance tours.”

But for Kim Seok-cheol, an engineering professor at Myongji University and a renowned architect, the reason behind Kim’s penchant for larger-than-life infrastructure is simple.

“Architecture speaks for the system,” he said.


BY LEE YOUNG-JONG [heejin@joongang.co.kr]


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