SEOUL—The luxury palaces and holiday homes of North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong Il include private railway stations, lakes, and swimming pools, according to a U.S. economist.
"Most of Kim Jong Il’s mansions have a nice garden, a private lake, a checkpoint ensuring his security, and a surrounding wall," George Mason University economist Curtis Melvin, who has made a study of properties belonging to the leader of the ruling Workers' Party through satellite imagery, said.
"Many of these mansions also include private train stations. [In some], the train station is inside the residential compound, and the train enters that compound," Melvin said.
Melvin's research, published as "North Korea Uncovered" on the Google Earth online mapping system, has revealed dozens of luxury mansions used by Kim Jong Il and his family in the isolated Stalinist state, where the United Nations has said up to a million people are currently at risk from malnutrition and starvation.
The United Nations said in June that it already saw a humanitarian crisis in the isolated Stalinist state, with millions believed to be at risk from hunger in the north of the country.
North Korea has suffered severe food shortages for more than a decade, and frequently faces accusations that international food aid has been taken from the hungriest North Koreans and diverted to the military and ruling party elite.
Meanwhile, speculation is growing over who will succeed Kim Jong Il, the chairman of the country's ruling Workers' Party, amid rumors of his failing health.
Sources inside North Korea say that Kim Jong Un, Kim's third son by a mistress, is currently trying to gather support for his succession bid among the isolated Stalinist country's ruling class. Kim Jong Il, called the "Dear Leader" by North Koreans, was himself the designated successor of his father, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung.
The reclusive Kim has a reported preference for traveling by train, possibly for fear of assassination attempts, which Melvin said was probably behind the location of train stations inside the perimeter of his mansion grounds, in some instances even inside the residential compound.
One of his mansions, near Shinuiju in North P’yongan province, is surrounded by forests and heavily wooded mountains.
Satellite photos reveal the presence there of a very large structure and a large garden. A train station is situated directly in front of the residence, Melvin said.
Other residences include retreats at Wonsan, Hamhung, and Hwechon, all of them vast, luxurious structures concealed by natural barriers.
The "Dear Leader" also appears to favor lakeside properties, with several of his mansions and palaces built near lakes. According to Melvin, as many as 12 waterfront mansions have been built for Kim since he succeeded his father to the leadership.
These are visible on the outskirts of Pyongyang, Nampo, Wonsan, Hamhung, Shinuiju, and Mount Paektu.
Properties used by other members of the Kim family, high-ranking Workers’ Party officials, and other senior government officers bring the total of elite dwellings to around 70, he added.
In addition to vast lakes, large gardens, and private train stations, these structures appear to display a combination of Oriental and Western architecture.
'Bird's eye view'
In stark contrast to these images of state-sponsored luxury and extreme privilege, satellite photos also appear to reveal burial sites
on desolate hills and mountains. These may belong to
victims of the great famine of the 1990s, according to Melvin.
Melvin said "North Korea Uncovered" currently includes "tens of thousands of place markers" whose identities are often confirmed by a close monitoring of North Korean news media.
"When Kim Jong Il visits a facility and gets his picture taken in front of it with the managers, we use that information to locate the destination on Google Earth," Melvin said.
"North Korea may refuse to grant access to Westerners and other outsiders, but, through satellite photography, one can have a bird’s eye view of most of the North Korean territory," he said.
Melvin said that through satellite imagery he has uncovered evidence of North Korean tunneling activity related to "a number of industries."
"In a lot of cases we can see railways going under very large mountains and in some case not coming out the other side ... It’s hard to know what they are really doing under there," he said.
He said the place markers also include a number of North Korea's sprawling prison camps, many of which are located in the country's remote northern region.
"We’ve got all of the big ones. What we don’t have are some of the smaller holding cells and smaller regular jails, but we have the big gulags," he said.
Melvin said he is currently mapping out North Korea's electricity grid and hopes to enlist North Korean defectors based in South Korea to aid him in confirming the identity of the structures he uncovers through the use of satellite imagery.