This photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sitting alone on a ski lift might not look like North Korea flipping Europe a giant middle finger. But that's exactly what it is.
I'll explain. Kim is thought to have developed a love for skiing when he went to boarding school (under a fake identity) in Switzerland. One of his pet projects since taking power two years ago has been building a giant ski resort, something that does not immediately serve the world's poorest country but would be meant as a show of national greatness. So Kim made it a top national priority to build the resort, Masik Pass, and work has been proceeding feverishly.
But Kim's pet project hit a major snag this August: ski lifts. Kim just could not get his hands on any ski lifts. North Korea doesn't have the technology to build its own. And the countries that make them all tend to be in the West, where new sanctions imposed in March make it illegal to sell luxury goods to the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea tried offering millions of dollars to Austrian and French companies to import ski lifts, but both said no.
Finally, North Korea tried to import from a Swiss company, offering $7.7 million for the lifts. It would be a logical choice: The country's well-known history of neutrality at times extends even to Pyongyang. But the Swiss government blocked the deal, calling the Masik Pass resort a "propaganda project."
Pyongyang was so angry it issued a furious response via official state outlet KCNA, declaring, "This is an intolerable mockery of the social system and the people of the DPRK and a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans." Yes, you read that correctly: North Korea called Switzerland's refusal to sell it ski lifts a "serious human rights abuse."
In the four months since Switzerland blocked the sale, North Korea appears to have somehow acquired ski lifts. It's not clear how or from where; presumably they're confident in the lift's safety for Kim himself to take this lonely ride up the slope. The photo is surely meant primarily to demonstrate to North Koreans that the ski resort is coming along and that the ski lifts have the leader's confidence. But it's hard not to also see this as Kim thumbing his nose at Europe, as if to say that he doesn't need their stinking ski lifts anyway.
North Korean state media called the ski lift a "great monumental structure." Kim reportedly said that the resort was "at the center of the world’s attention" (it's a central myth of North Korean propaganda that the entire globe is rapt with admiration and wonderment at North Korea's every ribbon-cutting) and said it would open as soon as possible.