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N. Korea Pushes for Construction Projects


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Early this month, North Korea’s main Rodong Sinmun newspaper introduced construction projects that have been carried out under leader Kim Jong-un rule in a political essay. The paper’s political essay is a sort of article aimed at explaining and promoting the top leader’s intentions and policies. 

Notably, the latest political essay listed construction projects as the leader’s main achievement, rather than military, diplomatic or economic results. 

Here is Cho Han-bum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, with more.

Kim Jong-un feels pressured to show some achievements to his people in 2021, the tenth year of his rule. His grandfather and North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung gained recognition for his participation in the Korean guerilla resistance against Japanese colonial rule, socialistic industrialization and political legitimacy. Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, enjoyed a stable power base as he had been groomed for 20 years to lead the country. The current leader, in contrast, prepared for power transition only for three years and his legitimacy was rather weak. This is all the more reason why he should show meaningful achievements and secure public support. 

Unfortunately, the North Korean economy has been struggling under Kim Jong-un’s rule, with the situation worsening further in recent years due to international sanctions and COVID-19. In a word, he has very few things to show off. But since his initial years in office, he has carried out various construction projects that certainly stand out, at least on the surface. While the economic fundamentals have not improved over the last ten years, North Korea highlights the leader’s achievement through construction events. 

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper stressed hydroelectric plants and tourist complexes, in particular. It mentioned the Mt. Baekdu Hero Youth Power Stations, the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area, the Masik Pass Ski Resort and the Yangdok Hot Spring Cultural Recreation Center that was completed in 2019 in South Pyongan Province. 

North Korea’s overall infrastructure, including railways and roads, is very poor. The most serious issue is electricity shortages. The country supplies power only for a few hours a day, even in the capital of Pyongyang. It seeks to use its rich waterpower, rather than oil or coal. The Mt. Baekdu Hero Youth Power Stations represent North Korea’s waterpower generation, through which the country can produce electricity, regardless of international sanctions. 

For an underdeveloped country like North Korea, tourism is an easy source of foreign currency. Once basic facilities are built in tourist areas, the North can secure cash right away. That’s why the North Korean leader has invested a lot in tourism, despite economic difficulties. Also, tourism is not subject to international sanction. To avoid the sanctions and meet economic demand, North Korea has focused on hydroelectric power generation and tourism. 

Housing construction is also cited as Kim Jong-un’s achievement during his ten-year rule. The North has built new streets with high-rise apartments in Pyongyang. During the eighth congress of the Workers’ Party early this year, North Korea unveiled a plan to build 50-thousand apartments in Pyongyang alone over the next five years, with the goal of constructing 10-thousand units a year. 

High-rise apartments are easily noticeable so they can publicize the leader’s achievement. Many houses in Pyongyang are very outdated and housing shortage is serious in the capital. The newly built streets in Pyongyang under Kim Jong-un’s rule are aimed at promoting the leader’s achievement and resolving the housing problem as well. Lecturers and researchers at Kim Il-sung University moved into the apartments in the Ryomyong Street, while the Mirae Scientists Street accommodates scientific institutions of the Kim Chaek University of Technology and their employees. That is, the new homes were provided to members of the elite, which Kim Jong-un values. 

By concentrating resources on Pyongyang and making the capital look fabulous, North Korea intends to show the ideal scenes of socialism and strengthen internal unity. On the flip side, though, provincial regions continue to be left behind. 

A North Korean media outlet has recently reported that the country finished framework construction of an 80-story building in Pyongyang, even building one story every 16 hours. North Korea emphasizes the dangerously fast speed in construction. 

There is a military construction unit in North Korea, meaning that the military is in charge of major construction projects. As the Cabinet fails to function properly due to economic difficulties, soldiers are mobilized for quick and efficient construction. Construction projects are carried out pretty quickly in the North. For example, an 80-story apartment was completed just in ten months. The speedy work often leads to shoddy construction, however. An apartment building in Pyongyang collapsed, resulting in hundreds of deaths and causing an official in charge to make a public apology. North Korea advocates the policy of speedy and efficient construction work, which also has serious side effects. 

Some of Kim Jong-un’s ambitious construction projects have faced setbacks, due to international sanctions and economic hardships worsened by the pandemic. It seems the much-publicized Pyongyang General Hospital has yet to be completed, with the deadline to open the hospital already passing. 

When Kim Jong-un decided to build the Pyongyang General Hospital in March 2020, he said it broke his heart to criticize the fact that even the capital lacked modern medical facilities. Apparently, North Korea felt the need to invest in the medical area to mitigate public discontent amid the pandemic crisis. 

The leader ordered officials to complete the construction of the hospital by the party foundation anniversary in October that year. But it hasn’t been completed yet. 

When building apartments, North Korea may draw capital from wealthy individuals known as donju. The completed apartments are sold to donju, who then sell the new homes at higher prices to pocket the difference. But hospital construction is different. After the building is completed, it is still necessary to import high-priced, advanced medical equipment. Even if donju may invest in hospital construction, they have no way to retrieve their investment money. Due to the different profit structure, donju are unwilling to invest in hospital construction. 

Leader Kim Jong-un inspected the construction of a residential district along the Pothong River in Pyongyang three times this year alone. The 800 terraced apartments, when completed, will be provided as gifts to working people who devoted themselves to the state. North Korea has so far praised the socialist system by underlining that it provides people with homes for free. 

The construction site was where former leader Kim Il-sung’s official residence was located. He lived there until 1976. The area is considered to be one of the most propitious sites. 

Some of the new apartments will be provided to people of distinguished services, but rumors say that most will go to high officials of the party. If that happens, it could be part of the so-called “gift politics” for the elite. Former leader Kim Jong-il would give luxury cars, watches, liquor or houses to his close aides in a move to elicit their loyalty. But current leader Kim Jong-un has mostly encouraged or purged officials. As his policy has reached the limit, he seems to adopt “gift politics,” like his father. Apparently, he seeks to expand his support base by providing the luxury, riverside apartments to high officials. 

But he doesn’t care about 10-thousand flats in the Songsin(송신) and Songhwa(송화) districts in eastern Pyongyang, where roads and other infra facilities are poor.

Kim Jong-un shows to the public, through various construction projects, that he takes great care of the people. However, reckless construction projects have accumulated fatigue internally, and the benefits are expected to concentrate on a particular class. It is questionable if the construction projects will prove effective in strengthening solidarity within the regime. 

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