Mention North Korea and the first images that come to mind are nukes and impoverished, malnourished masses, certainly not amusement parks and ski resorts. Indeed, these latest North Korean projects seem to be a case of seriously misplaced policy priorities for a impoverished country where a majority of the population gets by on food rations and households lack regular electricity and clean running water.
Yet every dictatorship needs to embrace modern symbols of progress. Mao was obsessed with building up a cottage steel industry because he equated steel production with Soviet-style industrialization. Likewise, Kim Jong-Un has fashioned his country's amusement parks with knock-offs of Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower, a flashy “hotel of doom,” and a ski resort, the latest addition to the list of tourist attractions.
The planned “world class” ski resort on Masik Hill in Wonsan Province would feature a range of ski runs and a hotel, according to the North Korean state news agency. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was given a tour of the Masik Pass Skiing Ground and told the construction team, the Korean People’s Army, to build faster as he wanted it open for this winter. He also offered technical advice, having been schooled in the alpine arts himself while studying in Switzerland.
A nearby military airfield is being considered as a potential airport for eager skiers, of whom Kim is confident there will be legions. To accommodate them, Kim has also ordered that clothing and equipment for the sport be manufactured domestically – a necessity in light of UN sanctions that prohibit the import of all luxury goods.
Why all the trouble just for a ski resort? Tourist income is a plausible but not totally convincing explanation since a financially strapped North Korea would not have undertaken an investment that would take years to generate profit. Many believe that Kim’s vision was inspired by South Korean city Pyeongchang’s winning bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. So is this Kim Jong-Un’s way of saying whatever the south has achieved, they can too?
Viewed as part of a larger modernization effort in Pyongyang, most notably the modern and developed Changjon Street, the ski resort project is more than just a whimsical pet project of the young North Korean leader. Rather, such new developments represent more progressive thinking. For years, foreign goods and luxuries were regarded with suspicion and worldly contact resisted. Under his leadership, Kim Jong-Un has embraced modernity by making imports accessible to upper-class North Koreans while at the same time, veering little from tradition by quoting his father in saying North Korea is "looking out onto the world" — a country that must become familiar with international customs even if it continues to prefer its own.
Will the fate of North Korea’s very own ski resort resemble that of the ill-fated Ryugyong Hotel, which holds a Guinness world record for being the tallest unoccupied building? Construction of the Ryugyong Hotel started in 1987, was delayed twice due to funding difficulties from international partners, and eventually ground to a halt in 1993. The difference this time is that the ski resort is presumably state-funded and built by Korean People’s Army soldiers, with Kim Jong-Un staking his reputation on it, unlike Ryugyong hotel which is a business undertaking by Kempinski Hotel’s Group. So yes, we will probably not be seeing any North Korean ghost ski towns soon.