The trappings of the North Korean leader’s lavish lifestyle visible by satellite — Radio Free Asia
Bruce Songhak Chung is deputy director of the Geo Satellite Information Research Institute at Kyungpook National University in South Korea. Using Google Earth, he identified up to 30 luxury villas and several private islands used by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his family on vacation. He also spotted a fleet of five super yachts, one of which has a four-lane Olympic-size swimming pool.
The extravagance of the Kim family’s lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the living conditions of the majority of North Koreans, who are struggling to make ends meet in an economy devastated by international sanctions and a long trade hiatus with the China due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sanctions, imposed in response to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, are meant to prevent imports of luxury goods into the country, but, as Chung’s research shows, they have not stopped the first family from continuing to live the high life.
Chung recently presented his findings to RFA’s Korean service. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: How many of Kim Jong Un’s luxury villas have you identified from satellite images?
Chung: There are 20 to 30 exclusive luxury villas in North Korea used by General Secretary Kim Jong Un’s family. Among them, General Secretary Kim is particularly fond of his villa in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, his hometown. . The Wonsan facility, as shown in satellite images, is equipped with luxurious cruise ships, a marina, a horse riding field, a shooting range, a water playground and many other splendid entertainment facilities. In 2013, Dennis Rodman, a former basketball player from the United States, was invited there twice, in February and September, when Kim showed off his luxurious pleasure facilities.
RFA: What does the Wonsan installation look like on the latest satellite images? What facilities can you see?
Chung: There is a long soft white sand beach in front of Wonsan Villa. The sandy beach is famous for its exceptional landscapes. His father, [former leader] Kim Jong Il also enjoyed fishing and swimming here. The length of the white sand beach is 530 meters (0.3 miles), and there are about 10 large and small villas located on the beach, and they have beautiful views. If you look at the satellite image taken in January 2022, you can see the 50 meter long cruise ship with a blue roof in front of the villa. Opposite the beach, you can also see a building where Secretary Kim had lunch with Rodman. The walking paths and gardens are well maintained. At a glance, you can tell that this is a large-scale villa complex.
RFA: You were also able to identify Kim Jong Un’s cruise ships. Is it true that one of them has an international standard swimming pool and a slide?
Chung: Yes, General Secretary Kim owns luxurious cruise ships. We have identified four cruise ships at Wonsan villa so far. Cruise ship lengths are 50, 55, 60 and 80 meters (262.4 ft). Besides these, it has many small luxury boats. On the deck of the 80-meter cruise ship, you can see a 2.5-meter-wide pool that has four 50-meter lanes. This is an international standard size and four people can compete at the same time. We can also see four circular slides. Recently, the 55 meter long cruise ship was renovated. Its roof terrace has been widened from 20 meters to 40 meters and freshly painted.
RFA: Has it been confirmed that one of Kim’s luxury cruise ships is missing?
Chung: Yes. So far, a total of five luxury cruise ships have been identified in satellite images. One of them is now retired and there are only four left. It was 60 meters long and nine meters wide, and it disappeared in November 2017. According to foreign media, the cruise ship had reached the end of its lifespan and it was dismantled and decommissioned. Secretary General Kim’s cruise ships were all introduced in the 1990s. The life expectancy of each ship is estimated at around 30 years.
RFA: Is there anything in these luxury ships that violated UN sanctions against North Korea? Do we have satellite evidence of sanctions violations?
Chung: I believe these cruise ships were introduced in the 1990s under Kim Jong Il. UN sanctions against North Korea were implemented from the mid-2000s due to North Korea’s continued missile and nuclear testing. Therefore, these cruise ships must have been introduced before that. Luxury goods are items banned from trade with North Korea by UN sanctions, but North Korea secretly buys luxury items such as expensive cars, boats and whiskey, so they seem to be able to find a way to purchase these items.
RFA: After visiting the area, Rodman had a lot to say about some of the surrounding islands. Are they also visible on satellite photos?
Chung: There are three beautiful islands. Their names are Sa-do, Tongdok-do and Chon-do. Each island has docking facilities for ships and their own villas. Rodman, who visited North Korea twice in 2013, said in an interview with The Sun, a British daily, that the luxury villa on one of these islands resembled a seven-star luxury hotel. If you look down on the island, the villa is located in a wooded area. Rodman said it was more fantastic than a luxury vacation in Hawaii or Spain. Even the wealthiest people in the United States could not have enjoyed such luxury. I can’t imagine the size of the interior [of the villa] is. However, if you look at the satellite image, you can see that each island has well-established and well-organized recreational facilities.
RFA: Kim Jong Un’s villas, luxury cruise ships and fantasy islands seem like a stark change from the lives of ordinary North Koreans today. Would you accept?
Chung: I have long analyzed Kim’s luxury villas and cruise ships. They are always kept in perfect condition. I believe that a lot of resources and money go into maintaining them. The Kim family’s villas and cruise ships are so splendid that ordinary residents can’t even imagine [what they are like]. On the other hand, I have heard that North Koreans who know nothing [about the resorts] worried about General Secretary Kim, saying, “Our great leader worries so much about the people that he suffers in sacrifice by eating nothing but rice balls and sleeping only a few hours [each day].’ I’m afraid of how the propaganda works so well for Kim that the North Koreans idolize him to the point that they do.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.