North Korea did not go half way to celebrate the rebirth of the city of Samjiyon at the foot of the mythical Mount Paektu, Monday, December 2. The inauguration of this new city was accompanied by fireworks, a speech on the river, a ceremony presided over by Kim Jong-un and a guided tour of all the installations of this city described as the concretization of "socialist utopia" by the official media.
Inundated since the beginning of the 2000s, this vast urban project which covers several hundred hectares has been presented by the regime as one of Kim Jong-un's main economic projects. Samjiyon should already be able to accommodate "more than 4,000 families" who can be housed in the dozen buildings of 12 to 18 floors already built, says the official agency KCNA. Additional housing is still to be built in the next two years.
The date of the ceremony has been chosen as it marks the 2nd anniversary of Kim's Dec 3, 2017 where it "pointed out the fundamental flaws" and righted the course of construction. https://t.co/BWFTlMDV1d pic.twitter.com/TBrFZ0YO8A- NK NEWS (@nknewsorg) December 3, 2019
The city is also home to a stadium, a hospital, a shopping center, and blueberry and potato packing plants, the two specialties of this region in the north of the country.
"Socialist Utopia" and forced labor
The site of this gigantic new city was not chosen by chance. Mount Paektu, which serves as a majestic backdrop for Samjiyon, is considered the cradle of the Korean people, and official propaganda is the birthplace of Kim Jong-il, the father and predecessor of the current North Korean leader. A way to inscribe this city in both the national mythology and the family lineage. Two important aspects to establish the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un.
The inauguration of Samjiyon is, first and foremost, "a sign sent to the interior of the country," says Sebastian Harnisch, an expert from North Korea at the University of Heidelberg, contacted by France 24. This new city is presented as the symbol of a country that succeeds in providing for itself without outside help.
Stricken by drastic economic sanctions, North Korea has struggled to secure raw materials to finalize its ambitious urban renewal project, which has suffered multiple schedule delays. "The suffering that forces hostile to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [the United States, Ed] have inflicted on our people has turned into anger that has mobilized us," claimed Kim Jong-un, during a meeting with previous on-site visit last October.
Hence the insistence of the media to present this new city as the achievement of "socialist utopia". "This is a way for Pyongyang to point out that the regime is the last and only representative of the communist ideology, and that it is able to realize the promises," says Sebastian Harnisch.
An official speech criticized by North Korean defectors and human rights organizations, who denounce the use of forced labor "brigades" of young workers to meet deadlines, said the British newspaper The Guardian.
Ski resort and souvenir shop
If Kim Jong-un was so keen to achieve this project in time, it is also because it fits in "the propaganda effort of the regime to demonstrate that North Korea is living a new era under the impulse of its leader, "notes Sebastian Harnisch.
Kim Jong-un wants to show that his country "now plays in the same court as China and the United States," says the German expert. It is not enough for him to meet in person with US President Donald Trump or to welcome Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Pyongyang. To break the image of international isolation of his country, the North Korean leader wanted a city "modern and open to the outside", says Sebastian Harnisch. This is the role of Samjiyon, described as ready to welcome tourists with its ski resort, its cultural center, its hotels and ... its souvenir shop!
This is the paradox of this new city, portrayed both as a "socialist utopia", unique in the world and a "modern" city, symbol of a North Korea ready to take its place in the concert of nations. For the regime, it only remains to get rid of international sanctions so that North Korea can really claim a certain normality on the international scene. In this regard, "there is growing frustration in Pyongyang with regard to negotiations with the United States, which are not moving fast enough for North Korea," notes Sebastian Harnisch.
For this expert, we must now expect a "military provocation from Pyongyang to remember the good memory of Donald Trump, whether through a ballistic test or in the nuclear field" in the near future. The only uncertainty would be whether the show of force will take place before Christmas or not.