Fri, Aug 24, 2018 - Page 5 News List

Construction boom precedes celebration

AP, SAMJIYON, North Korea

A tour guide stands in front of the Great Monument in Samjiyon, North Korea, on Friday last week.

Photo: AP

Thousands of North Korean “soldier-builders” in olive-green uniforms and bright-red hardhats are doing everything from digging ditches to putting up walls on multistory apartment blocks and government buildings in the northern city of Samjiyon near the Chinese border.

Samjiyon is one of the main focuses of a massive nationwide construction campaign ahead of North Korea’s 70th anniversary in what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has described as a symbolic battle against anyone who would oppose the nation.

The Sept. 9 anniversary is shaping up to be the biggest event since Kim took office in late 2011. Along with huge rallies in Pyongyang on the day itself and the revival of North Korea’s trademark mass games at the stadium, Kim has deployed soldiers and ordinary citizens alike to erect buildings, improve roads and work on other infrastructure on a scale unseen in recent years.

The construction spree is intended to improve living conditions in keeping with one of Kim’s first promises to the nation, that he would bolster the economy so they would no longer need to “tighten their belts.”

However, it is also a demonstration of the power of his regime in the face of US-backed international sanctions intended to squeeze the nation’s economy and force the abandonment of nuclear weapons.

Kim made that political message clear during a visit last week to Samjiyon with his wife, when he was quoted by state media as saying “the hostile forces’ persistent sanctions and obstructive moves” have come as a serious setback, but added the North Korean people have risen to the challenge and are “making a history of legendary miracles, despite the most difficult conditions.”

Kim said that by “showily” building up Samjiyon, the nation is in effect fighting a symbolic battle against those who would try to stifle its “socialist civilization.”

Samjiyon lies at the foot of Mount Paektu, which is closely linked to the Kim family and is considered the spiritual center of the North Korean revolution.

Steam rollers and other heavy equipment are rare, so roadwork is particularly labor-intensive. Work crews spreading out nearly 20km from the city limits fill potholes with shovelfuls of dirt and flatten surfaces with wooden tools.

The work has transformed Samjiyon from a relatively sleepy provincial center surrounded by potato farms into a buzzing hub of activity the likes of which would be hard to find anywhere else.

The government says it is to be the model for future development projects nationwide.

One aspect of the building boom is that much of the work is being done outside of Pyongyang.

Under three generations of Kim leadership, the capital has gotten the bulk of funding and is far more developed than the rest of the nation, creating a glaring — and potentially destabilizing — gap between the capital and the provinces.

Along with Samjiyon, major construction projects are under way in several other cities — including 20-story high-rise apartments in the eastern port city of Chongjin and extensive infrastructure and tourism-related facilities in Wonsan, another port on the nation’s eastern coast.

Under Kim, Wonsan has gotten a new airport that officials hope will attract international visitors in the near future. More than a dozen resort hotels are being built near its coastline.

The construction campaign is all the more ambitious considering that it comes at a very sensitive time for Kim, who has held a series of summits over the past several months with China, South Korea and the US in an attempt to undermine international support for sanctions and establish his position on the global stage as the head of a nuclear power.

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