North Korea Clears Proposed Tourist Zone of Residents, Businesses

nkorea-wonsan-july2014.gif North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) visits an aquarium at the Songdowon International Children's Camp in Wonsan, Kangwon province in an undated photo released July 6, 2014.

North Korean authorities are forcibly resettling thousands of families and relocating businesses from the southeastern port city of Wonsan in a bid to convert it into an international tourism destination, according to sources in China.

It cannot be immediately ascertained where the families are being relocated, but sources say that establishments where the main family member works are likely to be responsible for making such arrangements.

The resettlement was believed to have begun immediately after Pyongyang announced plans in June to develop the Wonsan-Mt. Kumgang International Tourist Zone as a part of efforts to woo foreign visitors.

A Chinese businessman who just returned home after conducting business and traveling within North Korea said the tourism development plans in Wonsan have caused great anxiety and concern among residents and traders.

“There was a big commotion in Wonsan due to the forced relocation of residents in advance of developing the Wonsan international tourist region,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Many factories and businesses were also shut down or had to move to other regions,” he said, adding that he was not sure where the residents are being resettled or the businesses moved.

Tourist dollars

The plan to draw precious tourist dollars is now North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s pet project as the country struggles to develop its impoverished economy in the face of international sanctions largely due to Pyongyang’s defiant illegal nuclear program, sources say.

North Koreans in Wonsan are concerned about their future amid the relocation plans, the Chinese businessman said.

According to sources, there is no central policy in place for the resettlement plan, which will also affect the jobs held by residents who are to be moved.

Central authorities may also shift responsibility for tackling housing and employment issues resulting from the resettlement plan to local government units, sources said.

These units are expected to liaise with the heads of households affected by the tourism project, to be concentrated around the Wonsan-Mt. Kumgang area in Kangwon province.

The official Korea Central News Agency said  the project would re-energize international tourism covering scenic spots in the area of Wonsan as well as in areas on the east coast where tourist attraction projects are also under way.

No help given

According to a North Korean arriving in China from Yanggang province, Pyongyang gave almost no assistance to 10,000 families who were forcibly resettled earlier this year from the Amrok (Yalu) River bordering China following reports of increasing defections and rampant drug trafficking.

“Then, the central authorities only instructed that new houses be given to work units that included people who were subject to relocation, but they didn’t support [the directive] or allocate any budget,” he explained.

Additionally, according to the source, the company that was in charge of demolishing houses in the area then temporarily put the displaced people in a warehouse due to lack of financial resources.

A tourist resort centering around Mt. Kumgang, bordering Wonsan, was earlier shut down following a 2008 incident in which a North Korean soldier fatally shot a South Korean female tourist.

Government plans to turn Wonsan into a tourist destination include attractions like an underwater hotel, a flower park, an international meeting center, and a stadium, according to the state-owned Pyongyang Times.

Long-term project

A Chinese observer said Kim Jong Un’s prioritization of Wonsan’s development and investment was similar to that of past large projects.

“Kim Jong Un continually invested in Wonsan, much like he did with the recent remodeling of the International Student Camping Site in Songdowon following the relocation of the Galma military airfield and the construction of the Masikryung Ski Resport,” he said.

The Songdowon International Children’s Camp is aimed at helping young foreigners, especially from Communist countries, get acquainted with North Korea while the Masikryung resort is at the summit of the Taehwa Peak outside Wonsan city.

The Chinese observer said that all signs point to Wonsan being a long-term, large-scale project.

“It will not be temporary or small-scale work,” he said.

Reported by Joon Ho Kim. Translated by Jina Lee. Written in English by Di-Hoa Le.

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