North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in more than a month, visiting a new state-built alpine city billed as a “model” socialist “utopia,” as he seeks to cement his legacy amid widespread food shortages.
The visit to the northern city of Samjiyon, which was reported in state media on Tuesday, comes as Kim approaches his tenth anniversary as leader of a country cut off from the rest of the world since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. With its ski slopes, commercial and medical facilities, and housing for thousands of families, the city — located near the Chinese border — projects a very different image than that of a nation gripped by extreme poverty.
According to experts, Samjiyon is a major economic project developed by Pyongyang to support the notion that North Korea is thriving despite international sanctions related to its nuclear program. According to the regime’s official Korean Central News Agency, Kim said the city’s buildings reflect the “lofty loyalty, strong will, and sweat of our people,” as well as North Korea’s “iron will” to “achieve prosperity our own way.”
The city is close to Mount Paektu, a mountain that is central to North Korean founding mythology and from which the Kim family claims to have descended. Its completion date was set for last year, the 75th anniversary of the founding of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party, but construction was slowed by the pandemic.
Kim’s visit coincided with the completion of the final phase of construction, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year. “It’s all about cementing Kim Jong Un’s legacy as he approaches his 10-year anniversary,” said Jean H. Lee, a Wilson Center Korea expert. “Kim wishes to reinforce the myth that he is carrying out a divine mandate to rule.”
She added that developments like Samjiyon are especially significant for his legacy now, as North Korea is suffering from severe extreme economic hardship as a result of nearly two years of pandemic-caused border closures that have halted the flow of most goods and food into the country.
According to NK News, a regime-monitoring website, North Korea has been breeding black swans, which state media has encouraged people to eat due to a scarcity of other foods.
North Korea began the summer in the grip of a food crisis. A heat wave and drought could exacerbate the situation.
Kim took over as leader after his father died in December 2011 and has spent years eliminating rivals and developing defense capabilities, including nuclear weapons and missiles. He claims the weapons are required to strengthen the regime’s position against South Korea and the United States.
“The reality is that not enough resources are being poured into North Korean infrastructure.” “They’re being poured into the construction of nuclear weapons,” Lee explained. “What little infrastructure is devoted to is strategically focused on projects that serve the purpose of supporting Kim mythology and propaganda,” while many other towns and cities across the country languish. Kim displayed North Korea’s latest nuclear and other weaponry, including a version of a “hypersonic” weapon, in his last public appearance in mid-October. Analysts have expressed reservations about the weapon’s capabilities.
The dictator had not been seen in public for 35 days, according to reports, the longest such absence since 2014, but Lee said the extended period was not unusual given the time of year. Kim’s brief absences from the public eye have long sparked speculation about his health.
According to state media, Kim also toured agricultural areas around the city, which he described as “a picturesque model unit in rural buildup.” He also called for more scientific research into potato production in “unfavorable” alpine conditions.