Hungry and isolated, North Korea courting luxury travelers
With the exception of eccentric former NBA star Dennis Rodman, there are probably few people on the planet who have North Korean spas and sports centers on their list of things to see before they die.
The Hermit Kingdom has in recent years built a half dozen luxury hotels, where a single night in a deluxe room would cost the average North Korean worker more than 80% of his annual income. Pyongyang has also opened a mountain retreat for South Koreans’ occasionally permitted family reunion visits and a beach resort at a secluded bay at Wonsan, late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il’s favorite vacation spot.
Now comes word that shock brigades of soldiers have been deployed to finish a lavish ski resort at Masik Pass by Thursday -- not that there will be any snowpack yet, or ski lifts, for that matter. The full-scale rush, which has builder-conscripts lugging concrete blocks on their backs up the denuded slopes, is aimed at having the resort ready to coincide with the 68th anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.
Like all good communist hero projects, the ski complex, such as it is, will meet its deadline and what there is of it will be ceremonially unveiled on Thursday.
But according to the Associated Press, whose journalists got a glimpse of the resort-in-the-making last month, a few critical elements appeared far behind schedule: The two main hotels were still concrete shells; an underground parking lot was little more than an excavation site; and employee housing, access roads and a water supply had yet to appear.
What was in evidence during the orchestrated press visit was patriotic music blaring from loudspeakers atop minivans, and inspirational propaganda posters along the resort’s dirt-road entrance urging on the workers: “Full Attack. March Forward. Let’s Absolutely Finish Building Masik Pass Ski Resort Within This Year by Launching a Full Aggressive War and Full Battle.”
North Korean ski association leader Kim Tae Yong was quoted by the Associated Press as estimating the number of North Korean skiers at 5,500 -- or about 0.02% of the 24 million population.
“Even so, as he sweeps his hand over the scene, the official displays no doubt that what his country really needs right now is a multimillion-dollar ski resort in the secluded depths of North Korea’s east coast,” the AP said of the impassioned ski association chief.
The real impetus behind the ski resort, where ground was broken only 10 months ago, is thought to be rival South Korea’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Kim said Pyongyang proposed Masik Pass as a venue for some of the 2018 ski events but was shot down by both Seoul and Olympic officials.
Undeterred, the ski enthusiast predicted North Korea would have an Olympic ski medalist or world champion soon, now that it has, or will soon have, the Masik Pass resort as a training venue.
Project managers suffered their biggest setback last month, when Switzerland’s secretariat for economic affairs nixed Pyongyang’s $7.6-million order for two ski lifts because U.N. sanctions prohibit the sale of luxury goods to North Korea, First Tracks online ski magazine reported.
North Korea is subject to a raft of international sanctions for its repeated violations of nuclear nonproliferation rules, most recently an underground nuclear bomb test in February and a missile launch in December. Other prohibited weapons testing cost Pyongyang millions in food aid for a population still reeling from famine and crop failures that took at least a million lives in the 1990s.
North Korea’s state-run media blasted the Swiss decision as “a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans,” the AP reported. But it quoted ski chief Kim as boasting that if North Korea can make nuclear weapons, “we can build a ski lift.”
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