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Asia

Kim splurges on vanity projects while his people go hungry

Kim Jong Un's grandiose and expensive schemes that solely benefit the regime’s elite are bleeding impoverished North Korea even drier. The new leader appears even more keen on vanity projects than his father.

When Kim Jong Un took over the reins of power in North Korea after the sudden death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, there were hopes that he might be a more benign and forward-thinking leader than his father.

Analysts suggested it was the perfect opportunity for Pyongyang to reintegrate with the rest of the world, to do away with its prison camps, secret police and domestic policies that range from merely repressive to genocidal.

After all, they reasoned, Kim had been educated in Switzerland and would have seen for himself how nations can grow, engage and help their citizens lead a happier and more productive life.

It did not take long for those hopes to be dashed, with Kim retaining the state apparatus that controls the lives of North Korea's 22 million people, pushing ahead with nuclear and missile programs and defying the international community.

file - A photo released May 27 2013 by the North Korean official agency Korean Central News Agency shows an undated pic of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) during his visit to a ski resort construction site in Masik Pass in Wonsan Province (Phpoto: EPA/KCNA)

Kim's background in Switzerland is thought to have given him a taste for skiing culture

In common with his father's policy of rewarding those loyal to his leadership with gifts, ranging from bottles of imported champagne to foreign cars, Kim has also managed to increase imports of luxury goods - in spite of sanctions imposed by the United Nations for the regime's nuclear tests.

Sprucing up Pyongyang

The young leader has upped the ante by embarking on a much-publicized campaign to revamp showcase projects in Pyongyang - where only the elite in North Korean society are permitted to live - and to construct yet more.

"He's doing it because he can and because he is that kind of dictator," Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, told DW.

"He got a taste for these forms of entertainment during his time in Europe and now he wants the same things in the country that he rules," he said. "This is a man who is in his late 20s, has not had a normal childhood, has no real family and now just commands everything that he wants."

"He rather reminds me of Michael Jackson and, in that sense, I feel quite sorry for him," he added.

On October 20, Kim visited the Mirim Riding Club and admired portraits of his father and grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the man known in North Korea as the founder of the nation. Work on the riding club has not been completed, but Kim expressed his approval of more than 60 horses, the impressive wooden club building and the rest of the expansive facilities.

"He said the construction of the club proved again that nothing is impossible [with] the wise leadership of the party and the People's Army, which unconditionally and devotedly carries out anything the supreme commander is determined to do," the state-run KCNA news agency reported.

Impressive as it is, the riding club pales into insignificance with a number of other grandiose projects that Kim has ordered his "soldier workers" to complete.

Spectators watch people use The Munsu Water Park in Pyongyang in this undated photo (Photo: REUTERS/KCNA)

The park has been designated as a tribute to the people's love of their leader

In May, it was learned that Kim had ordered the North Korean military to construct a "world-class" ski resort that would rival the winter sports facilities being built in South Korea to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

'Field guidance'

Visiting the Masik Pass Skiing Ground, Kim gave "on-the-spot field guidance" on the construction of the resort, which will have beginner, intermediate and advanced-level routes on some 110 kilometers (70 miles) of mountainside slopes.

Local media report that no expense is being spared on the project and the resort will have a hotel, cable cars, equipment stores and a heliport.

A KCNA report said that Kim had been keeping up with construction activities, even having his own observation platform built. "He was greatly satisfied to learn that soldier-builders have constructed a skiing area on mountain ranges covering hundreds of thousands of square meters," the report said.

Kim also commented that it would be "more fantastic" to see the ground covered with snow and ordered the military to accelerate the pace of the construction so that the resort is operational from the coming winter.

Another pet project designed to turn North Korea into an international tourist destination, Kim has ordered the transformation of the industrial port of Wonsan into a beach resort town.

A document titled "General blueprint for the Wonsan District," calls for factories and dockyards that presently line the waterfront to be replaced with a series of new districts.

According to plans, these include a financial district, an area for entertainment and sports, plus facilities for summer visitors. The city's Songdowon Beach will be remodeled into a stretch of sand with all the trappings of a resort.

Renovating May Day Stadium

Back in Pyongyang, Kim has ordered a thorough makeover of the May Day Stadium - the largest sporting arena in the world with a capacity of some 150,000 - as another effort to spruce up North Korea and give it "the appearance of a highly civilized nation."

One project that has recently been completed is the Munsu Water Park (purportedly shown above in a picture from the KCNA news agency), which was described as a "monumental edifice for the people," on the banks of the Taedong River in Pyongyang.

"From the outside, it might be hard for us to understand the function of these vanity projects and to conclude that they're just silly," said the Meiji Institute's Okumura, adding that they make complete sense to Kim as he tries to buy the loyalty of the military leaders, senior political figures and the other influential factions that are in motion behind the scenes.

"They are rewards for the privileged classes of North Korea," he said.

Human rights organisations are demanding that more pressure be brought to bear on the regime, which spent $645.8 million (470 million euros) on luxury goods in 2012, a sharp increase from the average of $300 million a year under Kim Jong Il, said Yoon Sang-hyun, of South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party, in a report to the parliament in Seoul in early October.

An undated picture released by the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 22 October 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) touring the Mirim Riding Club (Photo: EPA/KCNA)

A riding club is one of Kim's less ambitious projects

Imports of bottles of high-end alcohol cost $30 million, with electronic goods costing the state $37 million and luxury watches a further $8.2 million. The regime also purchased animals, pet food and sauna systems.

Overseas aid required

In early October, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said North Korea remains one of the 34 nations in the world that require external aid to feed its people. The agency estimates that around 2.8 million "vulnerable" people in the North required foreign assistance ahead of the autumn harvest.

"The man has absolutely no sympathy for the suffering of his own people, and in that respect he is just like his father," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

"He's a fool, the rest of the world knows it and even the Chinese are realising it now," he added, with Beijing reportedly concerned at Kim's brand of leadership.

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