North Korea: The Next Thailand Of Asia?

Via NK, an interesting report on North Korea:


Nearly all communist states tended to have a “main construction project,” an impressive undertaking where, if the newspapers were to be believed, the workers’ enthusiasm for labor produced amazing feats and whose eventual completion would bring an era of unparalleled prosperity.

North Korea is no exception. In the past, such projects tended to be power stations, steel mills and mountain railways, but nowadays the North Korean public is told that the nation’s major achievement is a luxury ski resort being built with great efforts at the Masik pass.

A quick look at the list of the officially endorsed projects also indicates that an unusually high share of these undertakings are related to the hitherto largely neglected sporting and leisure industries. The North Korean media reported with great pomp the completion of Sinphyong Kumgang Scenic Beauty Resort, renovations of the Pyongyang Indoor Stadium and May Day Stadium (perhaps the world’s largest). There were also reports of Kim Jong Un inspecting the newly built 3D Cinema Theater, as well as Mansugyo Soft Drink Restaurant and Ice Rink. There are also talks of the development of the Kangwon area as a tourist zone.

What does all this mean? On the one hand, this peculiar enthusiasm for sporting and leisure facilities might be connected with another “get-rich-quick scheme” which seems ever-popular in Pyongyang. In the last couple of months there have been a number of indications that this time North Korean economic planners hope to generate much income from tourism. In other words, they hope to make North Korea into the Thailand of Northeast Asia.

“For decades, Pyongyang has been looking for some easy fixes to their many economic and social problems”

Such schemes are actually quite representative of North Korean leaders’ way of thinking. For decades, Pyongyang has been looking for some easy fixes to their many economic and social problems, for some silver bullet that will put everything to rights by instantly delivering prosperity while requiring no serious changes to the regime’s fundamentals. A few years ago it was CNC; today it seems to be international tourism.

The idea of tourism as a major foreign currency earner must appear attractive to officials in Pyongyang. They surely must think that a tourist industry can be developed in isolation from the economy and population of North Korea at large, and that the industry itself can bring in a lot of foreign currency with few, if any, negative social consequences. The recipe for success appears simple: build resorts and wait for rich tourists who will come to play in these fenced-off ghettos. According to some unconfirmed sources, the North Korean authorities expect that the Masik Pass Ski resort alone will produce an annual income in the tune of $60 million.

Needless to say, such rosy expectations are not very realistic, since North Korea is ill-suited to becoming tourist mecca. The major problem is geography: Nature has not endowed the country with palm tree-covered beaches, warm seas and year-round sunshine. Furthermore, its ski resorts cannot remain open enough months out of the year to be globally attractive (and one should not forget that getting to Pyongyang by air is not easy, with merely four or five flights a week connecting the North Korean capital with the outside world).

North Korea’s natural scenery is at times spectacular, to be sure, but the country itself has a distinct shortage of sufficiently impressive cultural and historical monuments. In this regard, North Korea cannot compete even with its close neighbors, Japan and South Korea, let alone with real world-class tourist destinations. North Korean authorities tend to charge a premium to foreign tourists, so a trip to North Korea costs roughly as much as a trip to Japan, and comes with none of the freedoms and few of the luxuries.

“A trip to North Korea costs roughly as much as a trip to Japan, and comes with none of the freedoms and few of the luxuries”

As a result, nearly all Western tourists in North Korea go there because it is so politically exotic. These are people – this author included – who can appreciate the Stalinist kitsch of Pyongyang’s monuments, and find amusing the graphic horrors of the anti-American atrocity propaganda. However, the average Western tourist is not like this, and he/she will not be willing to pay large sums to spend a few days in what appears to be a Stalinist theme park. It might be easier to get more Chinese tourists (they already constitute the vast majority of overseas visitors in North Korea), but they are less willing to spend money and it generally appears that they are not the major targets of ongoing North Korean efforts (and, of course, the Chinese are not known for a penchant for skiing).

Other problems are social. Due to political reasons, the North Korean authorities will almost certainly keep foreign tourists isolated from the locals. This is not the kind of treatment that the average foreign tourist would be happy about. Constant supervision, countless restrictions and a lack of entertainment facilities is another obstacle that will prevent North Korea from going the way of Thailand.

The North Korean idea of luxury is also quite moderate by Western standards, as all visitors to Pyongyang know only too well. Visiting Westerners and the ever-increasing number of Chinese will not be particularly impressed by the fact that the best hotels in Pyongyang do not have hot water most of the day and only infrequently suffer from electricity blackouts.

“It is quite possible that Kim Jong Un may sincerely believe that water resorts and ski facilities are very important to the livelihoods of his subjects”

However, Kim Jong Un’s efforts to develop an entertainment and sport industry are probably not solely targeted at foreign tourists. Largely, this new policy surely must reflect Kim Jong Un’s own personal values and beliefs. After all, he is a young man who suddenly found himself in control of a very large and seriously impoverished country. He wants to be popular, and he also probably wants to make the lives of his subjects easier and better.

Of course, theoretically he should start with changes to economic policy, but this is an area in which he is likely to encounter serious resistance. It is also important that the economy requires a great deal of background knowledge and counter-intuitive thinking – qualities that may not be the strongest in a young North Korean dictator. It is also quite possible that he simply does not know how grim the actual economic situation is. Kim Jong Un’s knowledge of his own country is largely based on relatively brief trips, carefully orchestrated, that usually preclude him from even sneaking a peek into the ordinary lives of average North Koreans.

It is therefore quite possible that Kim Jong Un may sincerely believe that water resorts and ski facilities are very important to the livelihoods of his subjects. This might be childish, to be sure, but we are talking a young person with a very peculiar life experiences here.

This might be a mistake, but it is a mistake of a person who is well-meaning (or at the very least wants to appear well-meaning). Of course, history has demonstrated that well-meaning but poorly informed leaders often meet a sorry fate.

Construction in the Kim Jong Era (Completed)

Construction in the Kim Jong Era (Incomplete)

Construction in the Kim Jong Era (Misc)

This entry was posted on Thursday, October 31st, 2013 at 12:02 pm and is filed under North Korea.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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