Kim Jong Un rides a ski lift prior to the opening ceremony at the Masik Pass resort in 2013.
Image: Rodong Sinmun
During working-level talks on January 17, North and South Korean officials agreed on a plan for skiers from both countries to train together at the North’s Masik Pass ski resort in Kangwon Province. The move is being received by some as a win for Kim Jong Un’s public relations strategy as the ski resort is considered one of his pet projects, which the North may try to promote during the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Construction on the Masik Pass ski resort – one of the first major projects of the Kim Jong Un era – began in early 2013 and was completed by the end of the same year. At the time, observers believed the project would be delayed due to flooding and problems importing the necessary materials, but nevertheless, touting their “Masikryong speed,” the authorities announced its completion within the year.
Kim Jong Un showed a keen interest in the project, visiting the site multiple times during its construction and giving on-site “guidance” in order to speed up the process. After purportedly completing the project on time, the country publicized the opening ceremony and began an intense propaganda campaign, including scenes of the leader himself riding a ski lift the day before the opening.
Promotional material for the resort claimed that it was built ‘to expand leisure facilities for the people,’ but analysts contend that it was built merely to collect foreign currency from tourists. While the propaganda claimed that this and the development of other amusement facilities was part of a national effort to improve the people’s livelihoods out of ‘love for future generations,’ it would be fair to say the primary target audience of the Masik Pass ski resort has been Chinese and Russian tourists.
A source previously told Daily NK that “the authorities claim in propaganda that these facilities are being used by all ordinary North Koreans, but people generally sneer at this.” She added that it is common knowledge in North Korea that ordinary people are busy trying to earn a living and are constantly forced to participate in work mobilizations. So the resort is off-limits to all but the highest-ranking cadres and some Pyongyang elite.
During the working-level talks this week, it was the South Korean side that suggested the idea for skiers from both countries to join together for exercises at the Masik Pass resort, to which the North agreed. A member of the South Korean delegation reportedly suggested the idea on January 17, as part of carrying out a ‘peaceful Olympics.’
“This new administration is pushing ahead with its prioritization of a peaceful peninsula, and the plan for a peaceful Olympics is part of that process,” a Ministry of Unification official said. “Since the games are fast approaching, we are continuing to exchange ideas with the North Korean side over ways we can cooperate.”
An image from a 2016 ski competition at the Masik Pass resort, which was attended by
Kim Jong Un. Image: Rodong Sinmun
During his presidential campaign in April 2017, Moon Jae In met with Gangwon Province (South Korea) Governor Choi Moon Soon to work on plans for their “5 components of a peaceful Pyeongchang Olympics.” These included plans to: 1) Consult with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, 2) Receive North Korean athletes through the land route at Mt. Kumgang, 3) Discuss the possibility of using North Korean winter sports facilities, 4) Use Sokcho as a possible entry point to receive the North Korean cheer squad, and 5) Hold an Olympics-related “opening” event at Mt. Kumgang on the eve of the games in Pyeongchang. This formed the basis of the Moon administration’s now 8-point plan for a “peaceful Olympics.”
Reactions to the announcement of the joint event at the Masik Pass resort have included accusations that any money provided for ski lifts by South Korean citizens, for example, would violate international sanctions, and that the event will not actually be related to the Pyeongchang Olympics as none of the Olympic athletes from the South will be participating. There is also the worry that the North is simply trying to use the occasion to advertise the resort to an international audience.
In response to public concerns, a Ministry of Unification spokesperson said that they want people to “understand the decisions on cooperation measures with the North as part of the process of ensuring a “peaceful Olympics.” We are also carrying out these plans with every intention of preventing sanctions-related problems from arising.”
Noh Kyu Duk, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also addressed the issue of sanctions, saying that they are “thoroughly considering the sanctions-related implications for every decision.” He also promised transparency and reiterated the point that preventing sanctions violations is a major priority.
“It is at least meaningful that there will be inter-Korean cooperation in areas that the North previously closed off, such as Mt. Kumgang and the Masik Pass resort,” said Jeong Young Tae, senior fellow at the Center for North Korean Studies. “But it is also important to remember the problem of the North’s nuclear weapons program, which must be addressed. Thus it appears that the South’s enthusiasm in this situation is clearly premature.”