Kim Jong Un Has An Enormous And Totally Bizarre Waterpark Barge

The pool party barge is just one part of a fleet of luxury vessels and other craft the regime maintains for the Kim family.

byJoseph Trevithick|
North Korea photo


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has now re-emerged in public, dispelling weeks of rumors that he might be dead or dying. His disappearance had prompted experts and researchers to comb available open sources of information to try to glean details about where he might be and his actual condition. A closer look at luxurious villas in and around the city of Wonsan on the country's western coast, which Kim is known to frequent, uncovered a very different kind of development. Satellite imagery shows that there is ongoing work on a bizarre 260-foot long pool party barge that features twin figure-eight water slides and a two-story lounge. Overall, it's something that looks like it was ripped out of a Hollywood blockbuster centered on a comically over-the-top dictator.

On May, 1, 2020, NK Pro published a deep dive into this floating water park, based on a number of satellite images, including a series of shots from Planet Labs from late April of a dock in Wonsan where the barge is typically parked when not in use. The story pointed out that the pool surface in the center of the barge appeared to have been stripped and suggested that the lounge structure might have been removed entirely at one point. There were also indications that there might be work being done on the slides. Other Planet Labs imagery shows that at least as of March, work had started to remove the underlying pool surface.

A satellite image of the docks from Planet Labs, dated May 1, which The War Zone has now obtained, shows that the lounge structure is in place and that it appears to have gotten re-roofed, not removed. The pool also appears to be full of water, suggesting it got re-surfaced and was filled to test it for any issues. 

A satellite image of some of the docks at Wonsan, with the pool party barge visible toward the bottom on May 1, 2020. The dark center section indicates that the pool has been filled with water. Other yachts for the Kim family, in white, as well as military patrol vessels in gray, are seen above. A trapezoidal barge, another craft employed for leisure purposes and seen earlier this year near Kim's main villa in Wonsan, is also seen., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
Another satellite image of the same docks in March 2020, showing the barge's pool surface partially stripped and the lounge area being re-roofed. The green-colored waterslides are more visible in this particular shot, as well., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
A higher-resolution shot of the barge from Nov. 13, 2019, showing what the pool surface had looked like previously, as well as the slides and the two-story lounge structure., Google Earth

The North Korean regime's exact plans for the pool party barge now are still uncertain. The available satellite imagery suggests that it has not left the Wonsan dock, at least for any protracted period of time, since September, but it's unlikely that the open-top craft sees use during the Korean Peninsula's often frigid winters anyways, making the last few months a perfect time for a refit before the summer season.

The available satellite imagery indicates that the waterpark barge does go out sparingly and typically during the summer and early fall. It appeared at Kim's main villa in Wonsan between in August 2019. It was also seen anchored off the coast of Wonsan’s Kalma Peninsula in the fall of 2019 and the summer of 2018, according to NK Pro.

A satellite image of Kim's main villa in Wonsan on Aug. 2, 2019, with the pool party barge just outside the perimeter of its protected lagoon., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION
A clearer satellite image of villa compound as of May 1, 2020. Another different leisure barge is seen at the main dock., PHOTO © 2020 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

It's not entirely clear when or where the waterpark barge was first built, either. It's not the only floating pool in the world, but it is definitely a niche craft and it's very possible that one of North Korea's own shipyards put it together specifically for the Kims.

We do know that it is more than two decades old, at least, dating back to the regime of Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il. Italian computer programmer and part-time pizza chef Ermanno Furlanis mentioned it in one of a series of articles about a bizarre trip to the reclusive country, which he says involved extensive vetting beforehand, including brain scans and blood tests, in 1997.

Ermanno Furlanis., Facebook

Furlanis said that Kim Jong Il, a known gourmand, had been seeking out "culinary demonstrations of Italian regional cooking" and that he was invited to the country to show the North Korean dictator and his chefs how to make pizza. This particular demonstration took place on one of Kim's equally extravagant yachts.

Here is how Furlanis described his encounter with Kim's floating waterpark:

"Mr Om [Furlanis' regime-assigned minder] told me to get ready because the next day we would be cooking at the seaside on a boat. When I expressed my doubts about this he cut me short with his usual smile and urged me "not to worry". The next morning a cabin cruiser topped with a salon and kitchen was sent to pick us up like a private water taxi. The writing on her stern read: 'Capri Miami-Florida'. Ah, the mysteries of international politics!"

"We sped along for about half an hour to the languid notes of Korean music past the islands and islets that form an archipelago in front of the base. At last a kind of a semi-mobile, floating amusement park appeared before us which was able to anchor in different places every day. It was made up of two waterslides which dropped down into a swimming pool. On the other side of the pool there was a two-storey [sic] building with an observation deck on the roof. I doubt if even [Italian director and screenwriter] Federico Fellini could have concocted something of this magnitude. We did not draw near this floating fun fair, and our guides even tried to prevent us from gawking at it. They went so far as to physically, though partly in jest, turn our heads aside with their hands. About half a mile further on we came to a big ship which lay anchored in sea. The heart of this ocean liner was, needless to say, a fully equipped kitchen fitted with huge windows overlooking the sea and where it would be our pleasure to work."

The Kim Dynasty is well known for indulging in lavish and sometimes eccentric luxuries, ranging from expensive western cars to high-priced liquor to ski resorts, all while much of the country's average citizenry lives in poverty and often at risk of starvation. The regime in Pyongyang operates significant smuggling operations to ensure that these imports keep coming, as well as skirt international sanctions in general.

The floating waterpark is well in line with the regime's excesses and is one of at least five party barges that have been in use over the years. Satellite imagery indicates that the North Korean regime dismantled one of the other five craft sometime around 2017. When it comes to the pool barge, after being of the Kim Dynasty's hard-partying lifestyle for more than 20 years, it could easily just be in need of a major overhaul.

A satellite image of the docks in Wonsan from November 2017, showing four of the five leisure barges, including the floating waterpark, as well as various yachts and other boats., Google Earth

When not in use, all of the remaining barges, along with Kim's yachts and other smaller leisure boats, call the docks at Wonsan their home. This fleet of luxury vessels and other craft includes a 95-foot Princess 95MY, made by Princess Yachts, a U.K.-based company that is part of a larger French conglomerate. That ship, which cost the regime in Pyongyang an estimated $7 million, first appeared in official North Korean state media in 2013.

Kim Jong Un visits a fisheries station in 2013. The Princess 95MY yacht is visible docked to the right., KCNA
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The Kim family's party barges aren't only the floating amenity in North Korea, either. In 1998, during a period of detente on the Korean Peninsula, a South Korean company purchased the world's first floating hotel and moved it to the Mount Kumgang tourist resort in the North. 

Originally built in Singapore in 1988, the hotel had gone first to Australia and then to Vietnam, before finding its way in North Korea. Last year, Kim Jong Un decried the overall state of the Mount Kumgang resort, as well as its aesthetics, saying it offered accommodations akin to "makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area" and "the buildings are just a hotchpotch with no national character at all." Kim called for the renovation or demolition of all of the structures at the resort in order to bring in line with the country's "own sentiment and aesthetic taste," which has brought the future of the floating hotel into question.

Kim Jong Un stands in front of the floating hotel during a visit to the Mount Kumgang resort last year., KCNA

Of course, North Korea's tourism industry, which is small, but had been growing amid improving relations between it and South Korea, as well as other countries in the region, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is very plausible that Kim Jong Un's recent pronounced absence from the public eye in recent weeks was been due to extreme measures to isolate him from potentially contracting the virus. Kim has just made his first public appearance since Apr. 11, going to a ceremony to mark the completion of a fertilizer plant.

With Kim Jong Un very much alive, it seems very possible that the work being done on his bizarre and massive pool party barge is in preparation for another season of fun in the sun for the country's elite.

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