South Korean press ‘insults’ not the real reason for North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang event cancellation

A picture of the Masik Pass ski resort taken by a South Korean inspection team member who
visited the facilities on January 24. Image: Unification Ministry

North and South Korean skiers participated in joint training and friendly competition at the Masik Pass ski resort located near the eastern North Korean city of Wonsan from January 31 to February 1. Despite the North abruptly canceling a joint cultural performance set to be held at Mt. Kumgang this week, the ski event went forward as planned. Concerns have been raised that the North is exploiting their participation in the Olympics as an opportunity to promote the Masik Pass ski facilities.

The South Korean Unification Ministry released a statement at 8:30 a.m. on January 31, just a short time before the scheduled flight to the North, confirming that “a 45-member delegation will travel to the Masik Pass ski resort in North Korea and participate in joint training. Our flight will leave at 10:00 a.m. from Yangyang International Airport and arrive at Kalma Airport. We plan to stay for two days and one night, and take part in joint training during the visit.”

In talks on January 17, the two sides originally agreed on plans for both the Masik Pass joint ski training and a joint performance at Mt. Kumgang. A South Korean team then visited both locations on January 23 to inspect the facilities, while both sides continued talks over the details of the daily schedules.

However, on January 29, North Korea suddenly notified the South that it had canceled the Mt. Kumgang joint performance, claiming that negative press in the South Korean media had forced them to abandon the plan. Although most of the South Korean and international media focused on the Masik Pass resort, calling it a ‘propaganda showpiece,’ the North used the excuse to cancel only the Mt. Kumgang cultural performance, while the Masik Pass event was unaffected.

As a result, there have been claims that the North is “exhibiting erratic behavior with their unilateral cancellation of joint agreements,” and that they are “openly trying to take advantage of the Olympics as a place to promote their propaganda.”

It is widely thought that the North sees the Olympics as an opportunity to ease tensions on the peninsula, improve relations with the South, and eventually persuade the international community to relax economic sanctions.

The North may have seen the Mt. Kumgang event as having lost its value for these goals, leading to a decision to use the cancellation of the event as a way to “tame the South.” They then focused their energy instead on turning the Masik Pass event into a breakthrough on lifting sanctions.

Speaking with Daily NK on January 31, Kangwon University visiting professor Park Yong Ho expressed his opinion that “North Korea probably decided there would not be much to gain from having South Korean celebrities come and perform at the Mt. Kumgang facilities,” which were originally built by South Korea and confiscated by the North. “They used criticisms in the South Korean press as an excuse for the cancellation, but really they tore up the agreement over the performance as a means of putting pressure on the South Korean government.”

“Hosting the joint training event at the Masik Pass ski resort is all part of promoting the facilities as one of Kim Jong Un’s official achievements,” Park continued. “The North is promoting the Masik Pass resort, the Mt. Kumgang facilities, and the Kalma beach project in a new push for tourists, which appears to be part of a wider economic policy going forward.”

Adding to the confusion of recent events, the South Korean group heading to the Masik Pass event received confirmation from the North for their chartered flight plan just two hours before the scheduled take-off. There were reportedly additional problems stemming from late negotiations between the US and South Korea over a request for the chartered flight to be exempt from US sanctions.  

The South Korean team eventually took off from Yangyang International Airport at 10:40 a.m. on January 31 for their two-day visit to the North’s ski facilities. The plane returned to South Korea on February 1, with the team accompanied by ten North Korean athletes scheduled to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics.