12 surreal pictures of a missile-site-turned-resort in North Korea

Wonsan beach children playingThe beachside city of Wonsan has become a focus of Kim Jong-Un’s military and economic developmentKCNA via Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s government has been building the coastal city of Wonsan into a beachside resort town, according to a report from Reuters.

Wonsan occupies a special place in North Korean politics, acting as both a luxury getaway for elites and a testing ground for missile, artillery, and other military tests.

But Kim has an ambitious vision for the city — he hopes to redevelop it into a tourist destination that will generate billions of dollars, and hopes to do so by attracting foreign corporate investment.

Here are 12 photos that capture the surreal nature of the Wonsan project:


Wonsan is a city along North Korea’s east coast where North Korean officials announced they would be undertaking a massive redevelopment program in 2014.

Wonsan is a city along North Korea's east coast where North Korean officials announced they would be undertaking a massive redevelopment program in 2014.

Wonsan Bay appears peaceful from a hotel in October 2016, even though the area is often rocked by missile and artillery tests nearbyHandout from North Korea via Reuters

The city has special meaning for North Koreans, including Kim Jong Un.

The city has special meaning for North Koreans, including Kim Jong Un.

Statues of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder, and his successor Kim Jong Il in Wonsan. Visitors are expected to place flowers at the statues’ feet.Handout from North Korea via Reuters

Wonsan has historic significance to North Koreans — the city was where Kim Il Sung landed with Soviet forces to oust the Japanese in 1945, and although no state records can confirm this, many believe his grandson Kim Jong Un was born in the city.

Despite the extreme hardships facing the North Korean people, most North Koreans who have been to Wonsan, including even defectors to South Korea, hold a high opinion of the idyllic bars and barbecues on the city’s beaches.

Despite the extreme hardships facing the North Korean people, most North Koreans who have been to Wonsan, including even defectors to South Korea, hold a high opinion of the idyllic bars and barbecues on the city's beaches.

Girls shower at a beach in WonsanWong Maye-E/AP

According to distributed brochures about the city’s development plan, the city’s vicinity hosts numerous beaches, historical relics, and natural baths, as well as reportedly 680 tourist sites.

According to distributed brochures about the city's development plan, the city's vicinity hosts numerous beaches, historical relics, and natural baths, as well as reportedly 680 tourist sites.

The State Merited Chorus, the Moranbong Band, and the Wangjaesan Art Troupe perform at an outdoor venue along the beaches in Wonsan.KCNA via Reuters

In addition to the existing civilian amenities, Wonsan contains summer compounds for three different government organizations, and has better access to electricity than the vast majority of North Korea.

In addition to the extensive summertime activities, Wosan also has a ski resort nearby, giving visitors things to do all year round.

In addition to the extensive summertime activities, Wosan also has a ski resort nearby, giving visitors things to do all year round.

The Masik Pass Ski Resort in Wonsan. The ski resort is just one of many entertainment ventures aimed at attracting domestic and foreign touristsWong Maye-E/AP

The facilities that already exist in Wonsan include water park, a bathing resort, as well as the Songdowon International Children’s Camp.

The facilities that already exist in Wonsan include water park, a bathing resort, as well as the Songdowon International Children's Camp.

North Korean and Russian children playing together at a beach at the Songdowon International Children’s Camp in Wonsan.Wong Maye-E/AP

Part of the camp’s initiative was once to foster interaction between children from various communist states during the Cold War.

The children’s camp includes an aquarium, which Kim visited in 2014.

The children's camp includes an aquarium, which Kim visited in 2014.

KCNA via Reuters

Wonsan’s beaches serve another purpose — as staging grounds for military target practice and missile testing.

Wonsan's beaches serve another purpose — as staging grounds for military target practice and missile testing.

The North Korean military conducted a “Combined Fire Demonstration” in Wonsan in April to celebrate its 85th anniversary.KRT via AP

The area had been a playground for the army long before any tourists visited it, and Kim has only recently revamped Kalma International Airport to be used to ferry tourists into Wonsan. However, the airport remains a dual-purpose civilian and military airfield, illustrating the marriage between the army and the economy in Wonsan.

And it’s not just the beaches — this island near Wonsan is used for target practice.

And it's not just the beaches — this island near Wonsan is used for target practice.

KCNA via Reuters

The army is central to North Korean society. The state has for a long time pursued a strategy of “songun,” meaning military first, which has put the army first in line to receive resources and money from the government. It was believed that military was the answer to solving North Korea’s economic problems, and its funding reflected that idea — the country spends 22% of its GDP on its military.

But North Korea’s priorities are changing, and Kim’s plans for Wonsan clearly reflect this. The city says it hopes to add futuristic high-rises, a huge department store, and a luxury golf course to the area.

But North Korea's priorities are changing, and Kim's plans for Wonsan clearly reflect this. The city says it hopes to add futuristic high-rises, a huge department store, and a luxury golf course to the area.

An illustration of plans for the tourist-oriented redevelopment of Wonsan in one of the Wonsan Zone Development Corporation’s numerous brochures.Wonsan Zone Development Corporation via Reuters

 

What is particularly fascinating about the project is that despite recent sanctions placed on his country by the UN that ban outside contractors from doing business with North Korea, Kim is looking for backing from foreign — including Western — investors. On top of that, Kim is doing so through the use of state corporations, and enticing business people through the promise of profit.

North Korean officials are eager to apply their newfound appetite for business toward the development of tourist infrastructure in Wonsan because tourism is one of the few areas not targeted by UN sanctions.

North Korean officials are eager to apply their newfound appetite for business toward the development of tourist infrastructure in Wonsan because tourism is one of the few areas not targeted by UN sanctions.

Cookies on sale in a store in Wonsan.Handout from North Korea via Reuters

The country hopes to attract a million tourists every year in the near future, but this is an ambitious goal — today, 80% of its tourists come from China, and in 2012, the Chinese government reported that only 237,000 of its people visited North Korea.

But Wonsan’s redevelopment still has no foreign backing — and the tourism industry is long from playing any part in North Korea’s economy.

But Wonsan's redevelopment still has no foreign backing — and the tourism industry is long from playing any part in North Korea's economy.

Kim Jong-Un poses in front of the Wonsan Baby Home and Orphanage in June 2015KCNA via Reuters

So far, “byungjin” appears to be working, and in 2016, North Korea’s economy climbed to a 17-year peak despite increased sanctions and widespread droughts and food shortages.

But this increase mainly resulted from North Korea’s military and nuclear spending, and not from tourism. Although the marketing for investment in the Wonsan project has been extensive, no major international partners have expressed interest in the project yet.

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