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Kim Jong Un and North Korea criticized after decision to tear down inter-Korean tourist resort

On July 10, 2018, in Pyongyang, North Korea, Kim Jong Un, leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, inspects a construction site at Samjiyon County in the Mount Paektu region. (Kcna/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)
October 29, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un’s recent remarks dismissing and promising to tear down a suspended inter-Korean tourist resort are drawing criticism from both citizens and government officials alike.

The state-run Korea Central News Agency reported on October 23 that North Korea’s supreme leader said the creation of the Mt. Kumgang tourist zone was a “mistaken policy of the predecessors,” after touring the area and ordering the removal of several South Korean-made structures, including a hotel.

While Kim did not specifically name his predecessors, his comments have been interpreted by the public to mean Kim Jong Il, his father, and Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and the country’s founder.

Sources say that residents are shocked that Kim would be so willing to criticize the late leaders, while officials, particularly those involved in attracting Chinese tourism, are concerned that the order to remove the South Korean buildings at Mt. Kumgang would make it more difficult to secure investment from Chinese investors.

God-like status of the Kim dynasty

“The people are puzzled [by his words], saying that ‘the predecessors’ can only mean Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. We treat them like gods,” a source from Sinuiju, North Pyongan province told RFA’s Korean Service on October 24.

“Everyone knows that the Mt. Kumgang tourism project began in the late 1990’s during Kim Jong Il’s so called songun [military first] era, with a huge investment from South Korea” the source said.

“North Korea was at that time suffering in the great famine, but was able to secure foreign currency [through Mt. Kumgang] to maintain the regime,” the source added.

“So when the [media] reported that [Kim] blamed ‘the predecessors’ for relying on South Korea, and allowing them to ruin Mt. Kumgang’s natural beauty, residents began to call Kim Jong Un two-faced, alarmed that he would resort to criticizing his grandfather and father.”

Another source, from South Pyongan province, said that this was the first time that any criticism of Kim Jong Un’s predecessors had been reported and that citizens don’t know how to react.

“People have died of starvation due to the severe conditions we are living in. Public sentiment about the Central Committee [of the Korean Workers’ Party] has reached its extreme. Some are saying that the Supreme Leader is anxious about the situation and blaming his predecessors for his current difficulties,” said the second source.

The people also found Kim’s order to demolish the buildings absurd.

“With the money they will invest in construction, to show off their own achievements, they could solve the [current] food shortage [instead],” the second source said.

Bad for Chinese investment

Meanwhile, North Korean trade representatives working in China to attract tourism to the North say that demolishing the South Korean buildings will make their jobs more difficult.

“Although North Korean officials have been saying that [the North] will first consult with South Korea, they believe that this is only a formality in light of the current mood in inter-Korean relations, so the [buildings] will eventually be removed,” said a Chinese citizen of Korean descent, who has ties to North Korean traders in Dandong, China.

“North Korean expats in China who are engaged in attracting tourism investment are worried that this [development] will further freeze Chinese investment in tourism,” said the third source.

A businessman from Dandong who works with North Koreans confirmed that Kim’s orders could cause potential investors to back off.

“Kim Jong Un’s remarks on Mt. Kumgang have greatly dampened investor sentiment among Chinese businessmen who were considering investment in the Wonsan-Kalma and Samjiyon tourist areas of North Korea,” the businessman said.

Construction in the two newly created tourist zones has been proceeding at a breakneck pace, as the coastal resort at Wonsan-Kalma and the “mountain culture city” in Samjiyon are key steps in Kim’s ambitious plan to rebuild the country.

“Chinese investors will closely watch North Korea’s moves toward the South Korean facilities at Mt. Kumgang, because they are now not sure about North Korea’s guarantees on foreign investment,” the businessman said.

“They are worried that if the Supreme Leader suddenly tears down all the facilities [at Kumgang] on a whim, the projects they are investing in could also be demolished if Kim Jong Un is having a bad day,” he said.

The businessman recalled how Chinese sentiment for investment in North Korea waned when issues arose with the Kaesong industrial complex, an inter-Korean manufacturing center near the DMZ.

The continued operation of the industrial complex is highly dependent on inter-Korean relations, and the facility is currently frozen as the South has yet to reopen Kaesong after suspending operations in 2016 in response to a North Korean rocket launch.

“Chinese investors have had trouble believing the promises made by North Korea whenever problematic events occurred in the process of operating the Kaesong industrial complex in the past,” said the businessman.

“It’s pretty likely that what Kim Jong Un said about Mt. Kumgang will have chilling effects on Chinese investment in North Korea again,” he added.