For North Korea, however, the training session is not only about reconciliation: It also offers a chance for the isolated country to show off. When Lester Holt, anchor for NBC Nightly News, visited Masik Pass last week, he described a “modern resort” with “a lot of families out enjoying themselves” — something most people would probably not expect to see in North Korea, Holt said.
Other foreigners who have visited the resort recently have expressed similar sentiments. “When you think of a ski resort in North Korea, you don't imagine much,” said Jamie Barrow, a snowboarder who has previously trained with the British team and visited the resort last February. “I was surprised.”
That reaction is understandable. To build the resort, North Korea had to circumvent considerable international isolation. When North Korea opened the resort in 2013, it was heavily sanctioned by the United Nations, which made it difficult for Pyongyang to do relatively simple things such as import a ski lift from Switzerland.
But under Kim Jong Un, North Korea has pursued a strategy of “byungjin” — a dual pursuit of developing the country's nuclear weapons at the same time it is advancing the country's domestic economy. The push to reveal the resort to an international audience may be a sign that North Korea is be preparing for a future despite its isolation — or perhaps for an end to the isolation altogether.
“With projects like Masikryong, Kim Jong Un wants to make it clear that he cares not just about the country surviving and fighting the Americans, but also about people having fun,” said Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and co-editor of the North Korean Economy Watch blog, using the Korean name of the resort.
In an email, Pak Song Il, North Korea's U.N. ambassador, emphasized that Masik Pass was designed for “our children” and that Pyongyang aimed to provide “excellent facilities and conditions” for North Koreans to enjoy skiing and other winter sports.
Despite the country's ample slopes, North Korea isn't known for its love of winter sports. The country has an impressive history in Summer Olympic Games, but its participation during Winter Olympics is less illustrious — it has won only two medals total. For many North Koreans, skiing wasn't viewed as a competitive sport but instead as a way to get around during winter or a requirement of military training.
Before Masik Pass opened, the country had one ski resort. A bare-bones facility stood in Samjiyon near Mount Paektu on the Chinese border for decades, later expanded into a simple skiing village in the early 2000s. The resort was once scheduled to host the 1995 Asian Winter Games, but North Korea backed out. Simon Cockerell, an executive at Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which leads tourist trips to North Korea, said the resort's remote location made it an unfeasible vacation destination most of the year.
Things began to change in 2011, when Kim Jong Il died at age 70 and was replaced as North Korea's leader by his son Kim Jong Un. The younger Kim had spent part of his childhood at a boarding school in Switzerland. Soon after he took control, he led a plan to revitalize the country's sporting facilities.
Masik Pass may be the most ambitious element of that project. When it was unveiled in 2013, North Korean state media bragged of its “world-class” facilities, which it said included 10 slopes. The resort, which is believed to have cost tens of millions of dollars, features a large hotel, decorated in a classy if dated alpine style, with attractions such as a bowling alley and a nightclub.
Despite North Korea's sanctioned status, when Masik Pass opened, Kim was pictured sitting on a ski lift. It was later discovered that the secondhand machine was imported from Austria.
The quick turnaround and high standards seen at the resort were a sign of how important the project was to Kim. “Masikryong is Kim Jong Un's project, so the government would do whatever it needs to get the right stuff,” Katzeff Silberstein said. The construction apparently went so well that North Korea recently unveiled another ski resort in Kanggye, which local media described as being completed at “Masikryong Speed” because it opened just five months after construction began.
It isn't clear whether the demand for a new ski resort is there yet, however. Barrow said that when he visited Masik Pass last year, he saw little evidence that people were skiing the higher slopes — only three of the slopes had been prepared for use with pistes. When he and his party tried to use a ski lift at 9 a.m. to reach the top, Barrow said, it had been switched off, as no one had been using it.
The lack of frequent visitors can at least partly be explained by the price: about $30 last year, according to visiting journalists. Although many wealthy Pyongyang residents can afford that, it is out of the range for most in a country where the average monthly salary is nearly the same. Most North Korean visitors are thought to visit the resort on free work trips as a reward for high productivity in state industry. For many, it will be their first time skiing.
Outside observers doubt that the resort can make a profit for the North Korean government. “It's a huge cash sink,” said Cockerell, who visited Masik Pass with American basketball star Dennis Rodman in 2014. “If you want to encourage their economic collapse, they should be building more of these.”
Instead, the value of ski resorts for North Korea may be more symbolic. Plans to build Masik Pass, for example, were announced about the same time PyeongChang was chosen to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Notably, both the North Korean resort and the South Korean Olympic venues are in Gangwon, a province on the peninsula that was divided after the Korean War. There was once talk of Olympic events being held at the resort, and although that hasn't come to pass, the sight of South Korean athletes training at the resort may be a consolation prize.
The resort may also give a hopeful glimpse of how North Korea views its future. Despite the country's dire human rights record, its international isolation and the risk of conflict, a small segment of North Korean society has grown more comfortable over recent years. “The number of people who have leisure time is increasing — from almost none to more than you would expect,” said Cockerell, adding that all the North Koreans he knew who had visited Masik Pass had loved the experience.
A less clear hope may be that once North Korea has made sufficient advances in its weapons program, its international isolation may ease — and foreign tourists will visit. Curtis Melvin, another co-editor of the North Korea Economy Watch blog who also works at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that despite tensions over Kim's weapons program, Pyongyang officials haven't stopped working on their plan for special economic zones for foreign investment — including a tourist zone that would include Masik Pass.
“That seems crazy to us, but that's what they're employed for,” Melvin said.
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