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Explaining the boom of leisure activities in North Korea

Photo Credit: The New York Times

According to the Korea Development Institute, a recent boom of leisure facilities occurred in North Korea, ranging from the construction of shopping malls, amusement parks, sports, and cultural centers. North Korea even built a new water park with a dolphin aquarium along with a wide-spread ski slope and a ski resort just for the “donju,” or 'masters of money' that refers to the rising middle class. [1] Furthermore, the Wonsan Tourism package gives a glimpse of everyday life in North Korea- with towering resorts, hotels, funfairs, and water parks- to foreigners curious about life inside North Korea. Yet, it is crucial to highlight that this rise of entertainment industries and facilities exist in a country that is notorious for human rights violations and forced labor; where infant mortality rates stand at a high 19.3 infant deaths per 1,000 live births; and life expectancy is at a low 65.6-72.7 years for males and females respectively. [2] This blog post aims to analyze the driving forces behind the North Korean regime in investing and building such devices of leisure and its potential effects on the North Korean people, distinct from other research about leisure in North Korea that has mainly been centered around the tourism industry.

One potential underlying reason to explain why North Korea started this boom of building leisure facilities can be traced back to a theory that states that more leisure time is positively correlated with mental and physical health. By increasing access to leisure facilities, the Kim regime may be trying to positively influence the mental and physical health of its people, thus increasing overall satisfaction with the status quo. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Leisure Research reported that there was a decreased level of life satisfaction in inactive elderly people compared to active adults. In fact, higher life satisfaction was positively correlated with higher leisure, self-esteem, better health, and lower chances of chronic illnesses. [3] Another study surveyed 470 college students in Taiwan to find the relationship between leisure participation, leisure satisfaction, and life satisfaction. The results of this study also showed there was a significant relationship between leisure participation and life satisfaction (r= 0.35, P<0.01), thus indicating that more leisure participation increases life satisfaction.[4]

Another reason to explain why North Korea could be investing so much labor and resources into building leisure infrastructure could be because the North Korean government is attempting to provide an escape route for emotional release within the restricted lifestyles of the North Koreans. According to “Youth and Leisure,” Eduard C. Lindeman states how leisure activities such as sports, entertainment, culture, and arts tend to arouse specific type of emotions that are socially and psychologically different from emotions that people feel in their ordinary non-leisure lives or critical situations. For example, strong emotions of fear and excitement are aroused when watching a game of football. These emotions are inseparable from leisure enjoyment, and provide an escape from routine, particularly unemotional routines, that require a high degree of emotional constancy and control. [5] Thus, to take care of this problem of “leisure starvation,” or a monotonous state with the absence of such strains of strong emotions, North Korea could have built the facilities so that its people could enjoy short term leisure activities that allow emotional release.

The sudden boom of leisure facilities could also be attributed to an economic view based off a sociological perspective. According to Dan Cui, leisure has the potential to improve labor productivity by improving self-development. This claim could be attributed to the fact that leisure time increased labor productivity in terms of per capital per hour GDP in 10 OECD countries. Cui states that there are two ways to increase labor productivity: to apply advanced technology during work hours or establish self-realization and self-fulfillment within individuals to positively influence labor productivity. [6]

The study showed that leisure time is necessary to inculcate self-realization along with self-fulfillment within individual laborers. In addition, the study displayed possibilities of producing technological externalities for society with more leisure time, thus increasing human capital and GDP. In fact, the optimal level of leisure time turned out to be 5,813 hours. If the leisure time was relatively small or close to zero, the correlation between leisure time and labor productivity turned out to be weak. On the other hand, following the substitution effect, too much leisure time beyond the optimal hours had a negative effect on productivity, as there was a lack of laborers to work in the labor force, hence decreasing labor productivity. This phenomenon increased the opportunity cost of using leisure time in place of time that could have been used to work and produce goods and services.

The first point, that recreational facilities were developed to improve the mental and physical health of the North Korean people, can be extrapolated to North Korea’s possible attempt to address the human rights issues that North Korea has been struggling to take care of over the past decades. By utilizing the number of leisure facilities, the Kim regime could positively affect the mental and physical health of the North Korean people. As shown in the Journal of Leisure Research and the survey of Taiwanese university students, more leisure participation was positively correlated with the mental and physical health. Likewise, North Korea could be attempting to improve the mental and physical health of its people to create a more stable society that will be satisfied with the status quo. With these continuing efforts, North Korea may take a step closer to addressing the basic human needs for leisure, being able to take better care of the life satisfaction of the upper middle class who are able to enjoy these leisure facilities, which is an improvement from the past regime that only focused its funds on strengthening North Korea militaristically.

The second point was that North Korea may be investing in leisure facilities to provide an emotional escape route from a monotonous and routine life. Considering that typical North Koreans are bounded or restricted from listening to foreign media, leaving the country, practicing religions such as Christianity, and even possessing private enterprises, it is possible that North Koreans could feel a high level of stress from being unable to express what they feel freely. Leisure activities could provide an emotional escape for North Koreans who are bound by stringent laws under the North Korean dictatorship that disregards the basic freedoms of thought or expression. By providing this emotional escape route, North Korea could possibly alleviate the potential consequences of the stringent regulations and restrictions imposed by the government onto its own people.

The final claim was that more opportunities to enjoy leisure activities could spur self-realization and self-fulfillment that increases efficiency of the labor force, along with providing technological externalities that could also increase capital and investment, thus increasing labor productivity. This relates to the Byungjin Line proposed by Dictator Kim Jong Un in the summit with the United States. Kim proposed that he would use the regime funds to build up militaristically and the rest to develop economically. Since Kim has taken hold of North Korea, North Korea has improved economically and there has been no reported widespread famine as severe as the one in the 1990s due to increased space for private production, agricultural reform, and increase in leisure facilities, along with trade in the economic system. Among the various reformations, the growth in leisure facilities may be a domestic effort to improve the economy despite the many sanctions imposed on the North Korean government regarding weapons of mass destruction programs, arms trade, human right abuses, and other activities deemed illegal by the international community. In essence, such a shift from solely militaristic development to a bilateral development economically and militaristically has made a significant change in improving the North Korean economy along with the peoples’ standard of living.

In conclusion, this paper proposes the three underlying possibilities to explain the sudden rise of recreational facilities: to improve mental and physical health of the North Korean people, provide an emotional escape route from monotonous and routine life, and to increase labor productivity of the North Korean labor force. Granted, it is unclear that North Korea is developing the leisure activities to improve the lives of the North Korean people or increase labor productivity. Yet a hopeful possibility exists: that the North Korean regime would continue to develop the leisure facilities not only for the good of its own people but also for its own economic development.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

[1]Evans, Gareth. “How Leisure Time Is Changing for North Korea's Privileged.” BBC News, BBC, 22 Apr. 2018,

[2] “Democratic People's Republic of Korea.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 16 Nov. 2019,

[3] "The contribution of leisure participation and leisure satisfaction to life satisfaction of older persons." Journal of leisure research 14.4 (1982): 295-306.

[4] Huang, Chun-Yen. “The Relationships among Leisure Participation, Leisure Satisfaction, and Life Satisfaction of College Students in Taiwan.” ResearchGate, Jan. 2003,

[5] Lindeman, Eduard C. Youth and Leisure. 1937.

[6] Cui, Dan & Wei, Xiang & Wu, Dianting & Cui, Nana & Nijkamp, Peter, 2018. "Leisure time and labor productivity: A new economic view rooted from sociological perspective," Economics Discussion Papers 2018-74, Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW).

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