(CNN) — Ambitious plans for an enormous new beach resort on North Korea's southeast coast are nearing completion, according to satellite images obtained by the US-based monitoring group 38 North.
The Wonsan-Kalma tourist zone, slated to open October 2019, will be a huge complex with hotels, a marina, a sports complex, water slides and more.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un highlighted the project in his New Year address and is reported to have visited the site at least three times in the past year, according to state media.
Development has been proceeding at a rapid pace, with a cinema and water slide already built. What was a handful of buildings just two years ago is now a huge beachfront sprawl.
Jewel in the crown
In November 2018, Korean Central News Agency reported Kim had been critical of progress on the project while on a site visit in October and instructed officials to build more games arcades and cinemas and to plan a large water park and funfair. The Wonsan region, where Kim is said to have spent childhood vacations, has long been a summer destination for North Koreans and has been the focus of North Korea's tourism push for at least half a decade.
With the country facing international economic sanctions over its nuclear weapons programs, tourism remains one of a diminishing range of viable revenue sources.
The tourist zone is intended to be the tourism industry's crown jewel.
Wonsan's beaches have been popular with North Koreans for many years.
Carl Court/Getty Images
The Wonsan Zone Development Corporation produced close to 30 brochures in 2015 and 2016, detailing North Korea's development plans for Wonsan while advertising around $1.5 million worth of potential ventures to potential investors, reported Reuters in 2017.
The coastal strip demarcated as the tourist zone is sandwiched between the seafront and Wonsan-Kalma Airport, a military airport which has now become dual-use, thanks to the addition of a new international terminal in 2015.
However, while the airport now sees domestic civilian traffic, more than three years on it is still not open to international flights.
The tourist zone is reported to be home to sandy beaches, bathing resorts, mineral springs and natural lakes. The Masik Pass ski resort opened in 2014 to media fanfare around the world.
CNN's Paula Hancocks reports on the opening of a new luxury ski resort which caters to North Korea's elite.
The tourist zone is in an area that's simultaneously been used for ballistic missile launches and, in April 2017, what state media describes as North Korea's largest ever artillery drill.
"It may sound crazy to outsiders to fire missiles from a place he wants to develop economically, but that's how Kim Jong Un runs his country," Lim Eul-chul, an expert on the North Korean economy at Kyungnam University in South Korea, told Reuters in 2017.
Sand, sea and weaponry
US President Donald Trump commented on the country's tourism potential following his Singapore summit with Kim in June 2018.
He stated at a press conference, "They have great beaches. You see that whenever they're exploding their cannons into the ocean."
Pyongyang doesn't release official visitor numbers but, according to a report by Channel News Asia, North Korea receives an estimated 100,000 international tourists a year.
The Wonsan brochures, reports Reuters, want to attract more than a million tourists annually in the near term and up to 10 million tourists each year in the foreseeable future.
There is significant work to be done in attracting tourists to the totalitarian state.
In 2008, a 53-year-old South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier after straying into a military zone during a tour of the country.
In 2017, US student Otto Warmbier died following his release from captivity in North Korea, after being arrested on suspicion of stealing a propaganda poster.