By Eric Talmadge Associated Press
MASIK PASS, North Korea — The secretary-general of North Korea’s ski association views the sprawling alpine landscape before him with unabashed pride. Facing a strong, cold wind, he points to a dip in the rugged, tree-covered mountains and says the sunrise there is a sight of unmatched beauty, worthy of the nation’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un.
This is the Masik Pass ski resort, North Korea’s latest megaproject, the product of 10 months of furious labor intended to show that this country, so often derided for its poverty and isolation, is as civilized and culturally advanced as any other.
The complex of ski runs, resort chalets and sleigh rides will formally open Thursday, though late last month the main hotels appeared to be little more than shells, potholes filled the access roads and foundations were still being dug for secondary buildings.
Who will ski here? Perhaps Kim Jong Un, who reportedly enjoyed the sport as a teenager studying in Switzerland.
By the estimate of the ski official, Kim Tae Yong, there are only about 5,500 North Korean skiers in this country of 24 million — a skiing population of 0.02 percent.
Even so, he displays no doubt that what his country really needs right now is a multimillion-dollar ski resort. Kim bristles at the suggestion Masik will be a playground for the nation’s elite and a trickle of eccentric tourists.
This, he says, is his country at work. It is proof of the great love of the great leader.
The narrow road to Masik Pass winds through rugged mountain terrain, farming hamlets and lush foliage.
As the road turns to dirt, propaganda posters come into view, followed by rows of barracks for workers — hastily built shacks of stone.
Beyond that, hundreds, if not thousands, of soldier-builders — “shock brigades” assigned to especially urgent and difficult tasks — scour the slopes. Some, carrying blocks of concrete on their backs, look like they are barely teenagers. Other workers pound at the stone with hammers. Young women march with shovels over their shoulders. Minivans equipped with loudspeakers blast patriotic music into the air.
Masik’s ski runs — at the moment long stretches of dirt dotted with rocks, weeds and patches of stubborn grass — converge at the hotel construction site below.
Though two simple lifts have been installed, neither was working during a recent visit by Associated Press journalists; visitors drove to reach the top of the slope at Taehwa Peak.
North Korea has a tradition of diving into lavish, monumental projects, no matter their relevance to larger economic problems such as producing reliable electricity or adequate food.
But why a luxury ski resort?
With South Korea set to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, there is little doubt Pyongyang felt it had to do something lest it be outdone yet again by its prosperous southern brethren.
Ski chief Kim said Masik was floated as a potential venue for the 2018 Games, but Seoul turned that offer down. Kim vowed that with Masik as a training center, North Korea will have a world champion of its own in just a few years.
So far, it has won only two medals at the Winter Games — both in speed skating.
There is more going on here, however.
Outside the North Korean bubble, most of the world’s attention has been on how Kim Jong Un has pushed ahead with his late father’s strategy of establishing North Korea as a nuclear state, no matter the cost in lost trade and international sanctions. But internally, it is not forgotten that Kim has said improving the economy is as important as nuclear weapons development.
Kim and his advisers have vowed repeatedly to lift North Korea’s standard of living, which is among the world’s lowest.
They have focused on boosting tourism, providing the impoverished country with the accoutrements of a “civilized” nation and, most visibly, encouraging a broader interest in sports. The development of Masik Pass dovetails nicely with all three policy goals.
Planners foresee droves of tourists making the drive to Masik Pass after arriving by airplane at a converted military airbase in the nearest city, Wonsan.
Many outside economists argue that if it’s serious about improving its economy, North Korea should implement market reforms, build its energy and agricultural sectors and improve international relations by focusing less on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Officials plan to open the resort Oct. 10, the 68th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party.
With the clock ticking, the pace is frenetic. As recently as last week, workers were scrambling to finish the two main hotels — a 250-room, eight-story building for foreigners and a 150-room hotel for Koreans — an underground parking lot, employee housing and access bridges and a pumping station.
The resort won’t be finished by Thursday; Kim Tae Yong, the ski association chief, said much of it will be built in phase two. His only concern: the ski lifts.
Last month, the Swiss government nixed plans for a company to sell North Korea $7.7 million worth of lifts and cable car equipment because of new sanctions barring the sale of luxury goods to the North. Austrian and French ski-lift manufacturers also have reportedly said no.
North Korea’s state-run media has called the Swiss decision a “serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans.”
Kim called it “a pity,” but said Masik Pass will have three functioning lifts this year. “We can make nuclear weapons and rockets,” he said. “We can build a ski lift.”