Redefining 'White Elephant': N Korea's New Int'l Airport

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 11/21/2014 01:30:00 AM
Hoping for a less lonely planet than this, they're building a new international airport.
The term "white elephant denotes massive investment into something which ultimately has little or no practical value. In the developing world, these usually refer to infrastructure projects. Think of Greece hosting the Summer Olympics in 2004. Not only was the country saddled with massive debts for the Olympian spending spree on new stadiums and the like, but these sports facilities are mostly unused nowadays. However, even the Greek tragedy has no answer to what promises to be a tragicomedy of massive proportions as the hermit kingdom of North Korea is building a new international airport. Where the guests will come from is a different question altogether.

All the same, you read that right: the country that has tried its darndest to stay away from everyone else by applying Sartre's idea that hell is other people is building an international airport. Why the hell is the reliably xenophobic North Korea seeking tourists--albeit of a "right" kind to be determined at a future date? With only a few thousand tourists a year according to media accounts, let's just say this country isn't high on the to-do list of travelers. Then again, there is all kinds of tourism nowadays, so I suppose "gulag tourism" has a unique gallows humor to it: 
Pyongyang isn't exactly an international travel hub. But attracting more tourists is one of North Korea's top agenda items to generate badly-needed foreign exchange, so thousands of soldier-builders are working feverishly these days to give the capital a fancy new airport.

The new airport, which is now in its final stages, is the latest of North Korea's "speed campaigns," mass mobilizations of labor shock brigades aimed at finishing top-priority projects in record time. Dressed in hard hats and brown or olive green uniforms, impressive swarms of workers toil under huge signs calling on them to carry out their tasks with "Korea Speed." From some corners of the site, patriotic music blares from loudspeakers to provide further motivation.
And make no mistake, it's hard labor fit for a gulag that's going on at the work site. Once completed, the "airport" is meant to replace the shack that's been the official airport of Pyongyang for a couple of years now:
With most of the construction finished, their work is now focused on flattening out a new tarmac area, digging tunnels for drainage and putting the finishing touches on the main terminal building. Most of the work appears to be done the old way, by hand or with simple tools.

Though Pyongyang is the gateway to the reclusive country by air, it is currently served by an airport building that consists of a small, temporary terminal the size of a large warehouse, with only one baggage carousel, a tiny duty free shop and a makeshift book/souvenir store. The airport receives, at most, only a few international flights a day, almost all from China, with some from Russia.

But, in search of a badly needed source of foreign currency, North Korean officials have embarked on an ambitious campaign to significantly boost the country's appeal to international tourists in the years ahead, which has made building a more impressive airport facility a top item on the government's to-do list. The date of the opening has not yet been officially announced.
There is this notion popular even in the developed world that "shovel ready" projects can provide construction jobs to the unemployed masses during economic slowdowns. North Korea has been in a decades-long economic slowdown, so I doubt whether this project is going to do any good other than serve as comic fodder for bloggers and the like. Nor do I see how this effort fits with the country's juche principle of self-reliance since building an airport represents tacit recognition that, hey, foreigners have something to offer after all.

There are only so many visits Dennis Rodman can make. On the official DPRK website, most of the attractions are communist agitprop, so I don't think there's much of interest for those seeking a good time--unless you have different ideas about what constitutes a "good time." Some have characterized the entire nation as a "Stalinist theme park." As such, being sentenced to years of hard labor for unnamed infractions cannot be entirely dismissed. So, in this case, they can build it, but I am really uncertain who will come save for dyed-in-wool masochists and true believers in Marxism-Leninism.

In the finest white elephant tradition, it is built for a purpose no sane person can fully ascertain.