Wish you were here? Wonsan, a port city on the east coast of North Korea. - Teun Voeten
Wish you were here? Wonsan, a port city on the east coast of North Korea. – Teun Voeten


ITS tourism potential has been lauded by no less a real estate expert than Donald Trump, who praised its “great beaches”. But six years after it was first proposed as North Korea’s answer to Ibiza, work on the country’s first international tourist resort appears to have ground to a halt.

Backed personally by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the Wonsan beach project was supposed to show a lighter side to the hermit state, with luxury hotels, a marina, and a sports complex. Its inviting coastline had previously been used mainly for industrial purposes and televised military live fire exercises.

Yet the project is now well behind its deadline of April 2020, according to studies of satellite imagery carried out by 38 North, a US based website that analyses North Korea. It appears to be a casualty of both the Covid 19 crisis and North Korea’s gloomy economic prospects, which have grown even worse now that a nuclear deal with Mr Trump is no longer in sight.  

“Construction of the large beach resort, which progressed at a remarkable pace in 2018 and part of 2019, has lagged significantly in 2020 as the prospects for international tourism, especially from China, have stalled for the foreseeable future,” said the report’s authors, Martyn Williams and Peter Makowsky.

 A "Combined Fire Demonstration" held to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the North Korean army, in Wonsan - KRT
A “Combined Fire Demonstration” held to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the North Korean army, in Wonsan – KRT

They added that Mr Kim, who visited the project site four times in 2018 and 2019, also appeared to be losing interest. “Kim Jong Un has not been back on-site since April 2019, when he pushed the deadline for completion to April 2020. That deadline has since passed, with no indications of a revised timeline for completion.”

The opportunities presented by Wonsan were championed by Mr Trump during his early charm offensive to Kim Jong-un, when he told him that North Korea could become a tourism haven if it gave up its nuclear weapons. At a summit in Singapore in 2018, he mentioned seeing pictures of Wonsan being used for live firing exercises, when hundreds of tanks were lined along its beaches for a military commemoration day.

“I said, boy, look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo? And I explained, I said, you know, instead of doing that you could have the best hotels in the world right there,” Mr Trump said. “You have South Korea, you have China, and they own the land in the middle. How bad is that, right?.”

While work on the project was already underway, it is thought that Mr Trump’s endorsement made Mr Kim even keener on it. At one point, it was even reported that America had offered help in developing the resort if the nuclear talks worked out.

Privileged platform - Wanson's beach resort is mainly for North Korea's elite - Getty
Privileged platform – Wanson’s beach resort is mainly for North Korea’s elite – Getty

Critics pointed out that access to the resort for North Koreans would likely be reserved only for privileged party members, and that the money would be better spent on feeding the country’s people, millions of whom still face food shortages.

Mr Kim already has a luxury compound in Wonsan, equipped with a private yacht and swimming pool, where in 2013 he entertained Dennis Rodman, the US basketball star with whom he struck up an unlikely friendship.

Describing his visit to Wonsan, Mr Rodman said: ‘It’s like going to Hawaii or Ibiza, but he (Mr Kim) is the only one that lives there.”

The resort is one of a number of large-scale personal vanity projects backed by Mr Kim. In the capital, Pyongyang, he has ordered a revamp of the May Day Stadium – a vast 150,000 capacity sporting arena, and a prestigious new hospital project. Both are also now thought to be behind schedule.