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(Yonhap Feature) Inter-Korean joint training offers rare glimpse into luxury ski resort in N. Korea

All Headlines 17:46 February 02, 2018

By Kim Soo-yeon and Joint Press Corps

MASIKRYONG, North Korea, Feb. 2 (Yonhap) -- The recent joint ski training between the two Koreas offered a rare glimpse into a ski resort in North Korea, which leader Kim Jong-un aspires to develop as a lavish sports tourism attraction.

The Masikryong Ski Resort, located on the outskirts of the eastern city of Wonsan, is inaccessible to South Koreans as the two Koreas ban civilian trips across the border.

But a flurry of sports diplomacy ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics provided two dozen South Korean skiers and officials with a rare chance to use the resort, which boasts modern and luxurious equipment and facilities.

South Korean and North Korean skiers held joint training Wednesday and Thursday at the resort, one of the pet projects of Kim, who was educated in Switzerland and is known to be a ski lover.

This photo taken on Feb. 1, 2018, shows a North Korean saleswoman waiting for customers at a shop in the North's Masikryong Hotel. (pool photo) (Yonhap)

The resort, which opened in December 2013, was reportedly built with imports of luxury items, like European-made snowmobiles, banned under U.N. sanctions on the country.

On Thursday, scores of North Koreans were found enjoying skiing, mostly at a beginners' course. Some 2,000 pieces of ski equipment are up for rental, with four snowmobiles bearing the Ski-Doo brand name.

Foreigners and upper-class North Koreans living in Pyongyang are known to be the main customers. The regime could soak up U.S. dollars from its own people by operating the resort.

"North Korean defectors said that in the winter, a notice heralding the opening of the ski resort to lure local customers is posted at apartment buildings in the country," Kim Young-hee, an expert on the North Korean economy at Korea Development Bank, said.

The Masikryong Ski Resort usually runs until mid-April, though operations were extended into the end of April last year, according to a North Korean official.

"Many foreigners have visited here. International sanctions (on the North) are imposed, but Nordic people (who came to the resort) evaluated that the facility here is super good," the official at a rental stop said.

Multilayered sanctions on the North's nuclear and missile programs are squeezing the stable supply of electricity to the country.

But the official said the ski resort is provided with electricity from the Wonsan Army-People Power Station.

"Electricity is supplied with self-sufficiency here in Kangwon Province. That's the spirit of Kangwon Province," he added.

The North's leader has called for practicing the spirit of the Kangwon Province as his own self-reliance motto amid tough sanctions.

The province lies in the country's eastern region, where the coastal city of Wonsan, known as Kim Jong-un's real hometown, is located.

Kim presented his vision to develop an international tourism zone, spanning from Wonsan to Mount Kumgang on the east coast, in an apparent bid to earn hard currency.

The North rejects capitalist culture as being of a "yellow wind," but a variety of foreign brand items were up for sale at a store in a hotel at the Masikryong Ski Resort.

Products from foreign brands seen by pool reporters who accompanied the South Korean skiers' trip ranged from sweatsuits made by U.S. sportswear company Nike and its German rival Adidas to other sports and miscellaneous goods.

Perfumes from foreign cosmetic brands including Kenzo, Burberry and Lancome as well as creams produced by Japan's Shiseido were on display for sale at the shop, along with North Korea's domestically-made "Unhasu" cosmetics.

A bag from the Swiss brand Bally carried a price tag of US$400 and backpacks for climbing made by U.S. outdoor goods company The North Face were also on the shelf. It is not immediately known whether the foreign products are genuine.

This photo taken on Jan. 31, 2018, shows the Masikryong Ski Resort located on the outskirts of the city of Wonsan in eastern North Korea. (pool photo) (Yonhap)

"As there are many foreign customers, we've been displaying (foreign-made) products for sale. But visitors have more interest in (North) Korean-made products, and sales of our items are higher," Kim Il-sim, a salesperson at the shop, said.

The Masikryong Hotel consists of two buildings, one of which is directly connected to the ski resort.

Customers can use a special prepaid card, called "Masikryong Card," at the hotel and resort. The card can reportedly be charged with U.S. dollars.

"Buying North Korean products is fine, but if you purchase high-end goods, that can be problematic. Please take into account the current situation (related to sanctions on the North)," a government official, who was among the South's 45-member delegation, said during the delegation's recent trip on a South Korean chartered plane.

The joint ski training was part of Seoul's proposal to hold the PyeongChang Games as a "Peace Olympics." But a set of international and unilateral sanctions have effectively limited Seoul's leeway in supporting inter-Korean events and the North's participation in the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games.

The South is not allowed to directly offer money to the North under U.N. sanctions, which ban the supply of bulk cash to the North.

Many in the South's delegation did not carry U.S. dollars, and none of them could buy items in duty-free shops at the North's Kalma Airport, a former military airfield that is a 40-minute drive from the ski resort.

The idea to hold a ski training at the Masikryong resort sparked a heated debate in the South as public sentiment remained negative toward the use of a North Korean facility highly promoted by the regime.

In a New Year's speech, the North's ruler called on people to join efforts to complete the construction of the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area in a short period of time, an apparent bid to boost tourism to attract dollars amid the sanctions regime.

South Korea's plan to use a plane to fly its skiers to the North also spawned concerns that it would violate U.S. sanctions, which ban vessels and aircraft that have visited North Korea from visiting the U.S. within 180 days.

Seoul was able to win an exemption from U.S. sanctions just an hour before the flight's takeoff.

The row surrounding the ski training indicates that South Korea faces limited room to improve inter-Korean ties amid stringent sanctions on the North and no major progress in resolving North Korea's nuclear problem.

"Factors affecting inter-Korean relations have increased," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said.

"Previously, an ideological divide was a key factor, but now, the situation gets complicated as we should take into account international and unilateral sanctions," he added.

This photo taken on Feb. 1, 2018, shows South Korean and North Korean skiers holding joint ski training at the Masikryong Ski Resort in the North. (pool photo) (Yonhap)


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