Pet projects put Kim on a slippery slope
By Joon-ho Kim
Impoverished North Korea is constructing a lavish outdoor water park in a showcase city across the border from China, which residents say appears to be a pet project of regime leader Kim Jong-eun.
The park, with a swimming pool and a water slide, among other facilities, is being built in Sinuiju along the Yalu River and bordering the Chinese city of Dandong, where many tourists flock to get a glimpse into the highly-secretive hermit kingdom.
But while most of North Korea's major facilities are built out of sight from prying Chinese eyes due to security reasons, a Sinuiju resident told RFA's Korean Service that the new water park was
purposefully being constructed in a location which makes it highly-visible from the other side of the border.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he told RFA that Chinese cruise ships routinely pass within 30 meters (100 feet) of the construction site multiple times a day, and that the people of Sinuiju are starting to talk about how the project is simply meant to impress tourists.
He added that by situating the park around 500 meters downstream from the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which connects the two cities, officials were deliberately keeping it visible.
"Authorities forbid ordinary citizens from entering or leaving the country via [this part of] the Yalu River, yet they are constructing an outdoor swimming pool there," the resident said.
"How strange it is! I don't understand it."
The water park, which boasts a massive slide similar to one constructed in 2012 in Pyongyang's Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, is being built directly in front of the existing Sinuiju Amusement Park.
The resident said that it was highly unlikely that regular North Koreans would get a chance to visit the water park once it is completed.
"The facilities at the Sinuiju Amusement Park are only in operation for a few days during annual special occasions such as [North Korean founder] Kim Il Sung's and [Kim Jong-eun's father and prior regime leader] Kim Jung Il's birthdays," he said.
"I am wondering for whom the new water park is intended."
He said the park appears to be part of a campaign meant to make the young and untested leader Kim Jong-eun, who took power following his father's death from a heart attack in 2011, look more like a man-of-the-people.
But the project has largely confused communities on both sides of the Yalu who wonder why North Korea's leadership would commit scant resources to building it, when the country lacks many other forms of basic infrastructure and suffers annual shortfalls producing food for its own people.
Kim Jong-eun is regularly seen to order "pet projects" which solely benefit him and the upper hierarchy of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea while ignoring the needs of ordinary North Koreans, who are more concerned with finding their next meal than how to spend their leisure time, according to Korea watchers.
Earlier this year, Kim ordered the North Korean military to start work on a "world-class" ski resort.
Kim, who is said to have enjoyed skiing in the Alps while attending secondary school in Switzerland, ordered the construction of the Masik Pass resort apparently in response to South Korea being named host of the Winter Olympics in 2018, observers said.
Over the weekend, Pyongyang lashed out after the Swiss government refused to allow companies in the European nation to provide it with chair lifts and cable cars worth 7 million Swiss francs (US$7.24 million) for the ski resort. Austrian and Italian companies had also refused to do business with North Korea.
UN sanctions prohibit exports of luxury items to the North.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said the Masik Pass resort was meant "to provide the people, youth and children with highly civilized and happy living conditions and make them enjoy all blessings" and maintained that "objects needed for economic construction and people's living should not be subject to sanctions."
Earlier this month, severe floods crippled the completed portions of the resort, sending workers scurrying to repair the site and ignoring nearby towns, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
AFP said that dozens of people had been killed nationwide in the torrential rains that led to the flooding and cited news site Daily NK as saying that huge swathes of farmland and towns near the resort were inundated as water and mud flowed down the ski slope.
"But soldiers and workers mobilized to fix damages were only sent to the ski resort," the report said.
Reported by Joon-ho Kim for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Hyosun Kim. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.