When I first heard that Dennis Rodman had visited the DPRK’s first ski resort, I pictured him in a ramshackle sort of place.
Perhaps there would a few gentle slopes of hand-shovelled snow with a donkey powered chairlift and an alpine-style KTV. Just enough, perhaps, for the Swiss-educated Kim Jong Un to snap a couple of propaganda selfies on the piste.
However, what I found when I visited toward the end of the season in February, 2014, couldn’t have been more different. I’m no expert as a skier; I just pull on a duffle coat, point myself downhill and see how long I can remain standing. Not long, usually.
But even I could see that this place was a serious resort. The first clue was when we took the chairlift up to the top of the highest piste – and the journey took more than 40 minutes. OK, the lift was a bit slow, and the constant patriotic music blasting from speakers along the route did distort the passage of time, but the size of the place was immediately obvious. As I recall, there are 13 runs, from beginner slopes to pistes that could challenge the most experienced skier.
I’d also been led to believe the regime had built their resort in a place without reliable snow. But I saw no evidence of this – the conditions were ideal. In fact there was a fresh fall of snow the evening before we hit the slopes.
The western press has also reported that the building of the resort was hampered by lack of equipment – one article said chairlifts had been impounded in Switzerland as a possible violation of sanctions. But none of it – everything was there in place – the lifts, the kit for hire, the snow blowers, the whole works. All the place really lacked was skiers.
I visited as part of a group of four organised by Young Pioneer Tours. There was a similarly sized party with Koryo Tours at the same time. Apparently we were the first ‘imperialists’ to visit – apart, of course, from basketball star Dennis Rodman, who had been there the week before. We were told that he hadn’t skied, but had got drunk and crashed a snowmobile into a restaurant. But other than us few, the slopes were largely deserted.
Equally quiet was the Masikryong Hotel, the huge new 120-room resort at the site. This was built in the style of a monstrous Alpine chalet, and squatted at the foot of the slopes like some some sort of James Bond baddy’s lair. But it was a luxurious place, with several restaurants, shops, beauty parlours, games rooms, a swimming pool and an ice rink.
Like the slopes – where fur-hatted helpers vastly outnumbered the skiers – the place was crawling with staff. These were nearly all very attractive girls, all of about the same height, slim and with uniformly fair skin. Even though they may have been selected for their looks, they were unfailingly helpful, charming and efficient.
Seeing all these hundreds of workers buzzing about around the empty slopes, my reservations about enjoying a resort created (with conscripted labour) on the whim of a despot evaporated. This place must be costing the regime a fortune. Who would have thought winter sports could be a tool of economic warfare?
On the other hand, it’s already served up a portion of propaganda for Kim Jong Un. When I asked my guide whether the Marshall had hit the slopes, his eyes lit up as he said: “Oh yes. He skied from the very top all the way to the bottom – without using his poles!” This was shortly before the Sochi Winter Olympics, so no doubt those North Koreans watching the winning performances would have reflected that even gold medallists need to use theirs. But then his dad was apparently the world’s greatest golfer, so why shouldn’t his son be history’s most skillful skier?