Samjiyon: 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 multi-storey apartment blocks and government buildings in this northern city 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 leader Kim Jong-un has described as a symbolic battle against anyone who would oppose his country.
Kim Jong-un, centre, visits a construction site during a visit to the city of Samjiyon.
The September 9 anniversary is shaping up to be the biggest event since Kim assumed power 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". But it is also a demonstration of the power of his regime in the face of US-backed international sanctions intended to squeeze his economy and force him to abandon his nuclear weapons.
Smaller remote cities, like Samjiyon, are said to be benefiting from an massive North Korean construction campaign.
Kim made that political message clear during a visit to Samjiyon with his wife last week, 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 civilisation."
A North Korean guide gives a tour of Samjiyon Great Monument in Samjiyon.
Samjiyon lies at the foot of Mount Paektu, which is closely linked to the Kim family and is considered the spiritual centre of the North Korean revolution.
Steam rollers and other heavy equipment are rare, so roadwork is particularly labour-intensive. Work crews spreading out nearly 20 kilometres from the city limits fill potholes with dirt and flatten surfaces with wooden tools.
The work has transformed Samjiyon from a relatively sleepy provincial centre 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. The Associated Press was allowed to view the city on the same day Kim visited, but was not allowed to shoot photos.
A police man directs traffic on a street lined with apartment buildings in Pyongyang.
One important aspect of the current 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 country, creating a glaring – and potentially destabilising – gap between the capital and the provinces.
Wonsan has gotten a new airport that officials hope will attract international visitors in the near future.
Along with Samjiyon, major construction projects are underway in several other cities – including 20-storey highrise apartments in the eastern port city of Chongjin and extensive infrastructure and tourism-related facilities in Wonsan, another port on the country'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 United States in an attempt to undermine international support for sanctions and establish his position on the global stage as the head of a nuclear power.
His diplomatic gambit appears to be paying off in many ways.
Chinese tourists take in the sight from a viewing platform overlooking the caldera of Mount Paektu near Samjiyon in North Korea.
Chinese businesspeople and tourists are once again flowing over the borders – several large tourist groups were in Samjiyon last week – and South Korean officials are seriously considering ways to help the North improve its roads and railways. But doubts are growing over whether Kim has any real intention to meet Washington's main demand and unilaterally abandon the nuclear weapons he worked so hard to develop over the past five years.
That rift with Washington could significantly complicate Kim's rapprochement with his neighbours and stifle his efforts to woo the trade and investment he needs to fund his development projects.
A crucial indicator of where Kim stands will come soon after the anniversary when he is scheduled to hold another summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, this time in Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-un, left, and Moon Jae-in embrace after their meeting on May 26.
Moon, who has been playing a middleman role between Pyongyang and Washington, is under a great deal of pressure to broker progress toward denuclearisation. Without tangible progress, he will be hard-pressed to justify going against Washington's "maximum pressure" policy and easing sanctions any further.
Wednesday's announcement that South Korea is pressing ahead with a diplomatic "liaison office" in North Korea indicates dialogue between the neighbours is progressing.
The joint-liaison office in the North Korean border town of Kaesong – a potential first step toward building formal diplomatic missions — was discussed between Moon and Kim when they met in April. In a speech last Wednesday, Moon said the opening of the office was imminent.
"In a few days," he said, "an era in which the two Koreas communicate with each other around the clock will commence."
In any event, it appears Kim is ready to forge ahead with his economic plan. Though many improvements will be completed by September 9, it is clear from the construction in Samjiyon that his plans go much further into the future than that. Dozens of buildings are still in the skeletal stages and will likely require several more months to finish.
In the meantime, scenes of Kim giving his on-the-spot "guidance" to senior officials feverishly taking down his every word in their notebooks has dominated the TV news in the North each day since his visit to Samjiyon.
Denuclearisation, however, is rarely mentioned in news broadcasts.
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