A North Korean state-sponsored project to build a state-of-the-art hospital in the capital Pyongyang has been severely delayed due to a year-long suspension of trade with China over coronavirus concerns, government officials told RFA.
Though exterior work on the Pyongyang General Hospital is complete, the project was supposed to have been ready by the Oct. 10 75th anniversary of the 1945 founding of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, but builders have not been able to install elevators or finishing hospital’s interiors without building materials and medical equipment from China.
The project has been such a priority for the North Korean government that authorities forced residents from areas outside the capital to donate food and supplies for construction workers, with many complaining that they would never be permitted to set foot in the capital, much less use the hospital’s modern facilities.
Work on the hospital began in March 2020, but it has been several months since construction was put on hold.
The pet project of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un should have had a guaranteed supply of materials, an official of Pyongyang’s municipal government told RFA’s Korean Service Jan. 21.
“However, the interior work has not been started at all. Electric wiring, lighting, marble, other interior materials and medical equipment should have been imported from China, but they have not been brought in due to the coronavirus,” said the source, who requested anonymity to speak freely.
North Korea and China shut down the Sino-Korean border in January 2020 and suspended all trade, a move that has all but closed the North Korean economy off from the rest of the world.
Though builders tapped domestic suppliers to begin construction on the hospital’s exteriors in March, work cannot continue until imports resume.
During the ruling party’s eighth congress, held Jan. 5-12, the party ordered factories and other government agencies to wean themselves off of imports so the country’s economy could be more self-sufficient.
But RFA reported last week that because the congress decided to invest heavily in North Korea’s tourism sector, government officials were scrambling to find ways to import materials for building interiors in anticipation of a building boom.
“Inpatient facilities will go in the two main high-rise buildings, so elevator installation is the core of all interior work,” the source said.
“Last year, they signed a contract to import elevators and escalators from a company in Shanghai… but the coronavirus has prevented them from being brought in,” said the source.
The source said that the Shanghai firm had been chosen because its products were deemed to be fast and energy-saving, and safe in buildings over 30 floors, criteria that fit Kim Jong Un’s instructions to complete the hospital with the newest amenities.
“The company in Shanghai is not a Chinese company. It is a joint venture between a Chinese company and South Korea’s Hyundai Elevator Co., Ltd. But since we have a contract with a Chinese firm to import the elevators, there are no problems with customs,” said the source.
Another source, an official in North Hamgyong province in the country’s northeast, told RFA Jan. 22 that the hospital project became a priority when Kim Jong Un lamented publicly that the North Korean capital had no world-class medical facilities.
“The leadership ordered the completion of the Pyongyang General Hospital as the best medical facility, even authorizing the use of party funds to import the best modern medical equipment should the national budget be insufficient,” said the second source, who declined to be named.
The UN Security Council’s Sanctions Committee on North Korea did not reply to RFA’s inquiries about the South Korea-China joint venture and whether importing elevators violate sanctions meant to prevent Pyongyang from funneling resources into its nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea in September officially banned imports of products from China produced by joint ventures. At the time of the ban, a source from Dandong, China, on the border with North Korea, told RFA that authorities targeted “so-called Sino-foreign joint venture projects, especially those made in cooperation with companies from South Korea, the U.S. and Japan.”
A sanctions expert who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his job told RFA that products produced by South Korea-China joint ventures can be exported to North Korea unless they are sanctions items. In that case, they must be approved for a sanctions waiver by the UN Security Council. Even so, they may be subject to sanctions unilaterally imposed by the United States.
Reported by Hyemin Son for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.