Skiing in Choppy Waters: North Korea Lays Out the Pyeongchang Hustle

By | May 28, 2013 | No Comments

Kim doling out onsite guidance at Masik Pass Ski Resort construction site | image Rodong Sinmun, May 27, 2013

Kim doling out onsite guidance at Masik Pass Ski Resort construction site | image Rodong Sinmun, May 27, 2013

The Olympics are coming to Korea in 2018 and the North Korean Army is building a ski resort at Masik Pass. No country is better than North Korea at taking advantage of even the slightest opportunity to score propaganda points to the benefit of the state and the ruling elite. In a way that sustains archaeologist Clifford Geertz’s notion of “pomp serving power” into the 21st century, sport is being employed as a key element of propaganda in the Kim Jong-un era. The recent announcement by Rodong Sinmun (로동신문) that a new ski resort is being built by the People’s Army at Masik Pass is the latest indication of the regime’s strategy to use sport as a trope for a “strong and prosperous state.” If the Mass Games is a pompous event that reinforces the legitimacy of the regime, what would the North Korean people (and the world for that matter!) make of Olympic events held north of the 38th?  Christopher Green explains the significance and possible reasons behind North Korea’s decision to build the resort. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Skiing in Choppy Waters: North Korea Lays Out the Pyeongchang Hustle

by Christopher Green

On May 27, Workers’ Party bulletin Rodong Sinmun (로동신문) revealed news of Kim Jong-un’s latest onsite guidance tour of the provinces. This time, Kim headed for the East Sea coast. As Rodong noted, one port of call was a food processing facility run by the military. Another was a military supply unit. But the third was by far the most intriguing: a new ski resort being built by the People’s Army.

“Masik Pass Ski Resort” (마식령스키장; translated as “Skiing Ground” in English) is eponymously named after the Masik Pass (마식령) in which it sits. Located in Muncheon County (문천군) at the point where South Hamkyung and Gangwon provinces meet, the pass connects the plains of the west and Pyongyang with the east coast and Wonsan. The nascent ski resort thus lies not far from the Pyongyang-Wonsan-Mt. Geumgang highway (평양-원산관광도로; Pyongyang-Wonsan Tourist Highway), a fact Kim was quick to applaud, declaring with great satisfaction, “The traffic conditions are very convenient; Masik Pass Skiing Ground is in a great location.”

There is nothing technical limiting North Korea’s construction of ski resorts; and, like the South, it has plenty of steeply sloping ground to choose from. And yet, there has only previously ever been one such ski hill; near Samjiyeon at the foot of Mt. Baekdu in Ryanggang Province (see video here). So, why suddenly start building another one?

If You Build it, They Will Prosper: Ski Resort as Propaganda Trope |  Initial reports of the news have been lacking in scope and vision, although that is not to say they are inaccurate. There is logic to the idea that since the ski resort is being constructed by the military, it will be used for military practice exercises, for example. Nor is there any question that, no matter the circumstances, the resort will be of greatest leisure benefit to Party cadres, their families and tourists. Equally, the question, “Why are you building ski resorts when you cannot feed your people?” can hardly be dismissed without discussion.

However, these assessments get in the way of a more holistic appraisal. First and most obviously, there is a very salient domestic propaganda rationale behind it. Plenty of North Korean people live in mountainous regions, and they do, in fact, like skiing. Since he first came to power, the North Korean government has been promoting Kim Jong-un as a man of the people, one who, like grandfather Kim Il-sung, is dedicated to improving North Korean lives. Given both these facts, what better propaganda trope to employ than sport?

Real skiing at the base of Mt. Baekdu. Next stop Masik Pass! | image ⓒSino-NK

Real skiing at the base of Mt. Baekdu. Next stop Masik Pass! | image ⓒSino-NK

Moreover, sport is a key element in the propaganda of the Kim Jong-un era in any case, and the construction of a ski resort sets the stage perfectly for future media discourse about the nation’s winter sporting prowess. This can be propelled by the State Sports Guidance Committee (국가체육지도위원회), a cross-institutional entity chaired by Kim loyalist Jang Sung-taek that was launched at the end of 2012. Established in the midst of a positive atmosphere engendered by North Korea’s four gold and two bronze medals at the London Olympics, the committee has been domestically promoting sport (and sports-related propaganda) ever since, aware that the appearance of state strength is often attained through sporting victories, even at times when the state is not actually strong at all.

Beyond Sham and Show: the Economic Rationale for Building a Ski Resort | In addition, although North Korea is a place where sham and show have come to predominate, there are some genuine, albeit rather optimistic, economic concepts involved. As noted by the progressively minded, pro-engagement Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) at Kyungnam University in February this year, North Korea is hoping that the region around Tongcheon (통천군), a port county just down the Gangwon Province coast from Wonsan, can be developed into a Special Economic Zone.

Problematically, the South Korean government’s view of any such plan would inevitably be colored by one main, and very pertinent, point: in the event that it comes to fruition, it will involve the ongoing use by tourists of facilities at Mt. Geumgang, South Korean assets that were gruffly expropriated from Seoul after years of bilateral wrangling over the death of South Korean tourist Park Wang-ja at the resort in the summer of 2008.

Needless to say, however, these South Korean concerns don’t register with Pyongyang. In the words of Jang Jin-sung, the first of three major tenets of North Korean diplomacy is: “Pay no attention to South Korea.” According to IFES, citing a Chinese-language planning document on the subject, North Korea is doing just that. To wit:

Growing attention is being paid to the Tongcheon Special Economic Zone in the Mt. Kumgang Tourism Zone. Industrial service facilities will be built in the Tongcheon SEZ along the coastline including, ‘comprehensive industrial, merchandise, and communication service center zone,’ ‘international multipurpose building zone,’ ‘international finance, trade, and business center,’ and a golf course.

The master plan also includes the construction of “Wonsan International Airport,” the piece explains, and, equally crucial, significant upgrading of the aforementioned 310km-long Pyongyang-Wonsan-Mt. Geumgang highway.

No such endeavour would be complete without access to a ski resort, and this is no less true in North Korea. Indeed it may be more so, given that the authorities have concluded that tourism is one of the few sources of foreign currency that is politically risk-free (note the recent decision to permit Western foreigners to visit Sinuiju and Hoeryong for further evidence of this). Thus, it makes sense: people travel to North Korea just to visit amusement parks and play golf, after all, which leaves little doubt that “skiing where no tourist has ever skied before” is a money-spinner.

Hitting the dodgems down at Rungra Resort in Pyongyang | image ⓒSino-NK

Hitting the dodgems down at Rungra Resort in Pyongyang | image ⓒSino-NK

Lastly, but also most interestingly, is one aspect of the plan that shows, again, how adept the North Korean dictatorship has become at playing the long game. Based on the images published by Rodong Sinmun today, it appears that the ski resort project was probably launched sometime on, or at least around, July 6, 2011, the day the International Olympic Committee voted by 63-25-7 to host the 13th Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, just across the DMZ in South Korea.

Unable to Lose, Exactly How North Korea Likes it: Concluding Remarks |  What inter-Korean political capital will North Korea earn from constructing a ski resort of this nature? It is too early in the political cycle to tell. But if the ski resort can be completed in good time, it will situate the Workers’ Party very strongly for future political clashes with its Southern foe. By building a ski resort in the mountains close to the DMZ, the Kim regime is providing itself with the infrastructure required to, in principle at least, co-host events for the 2018 Games. If this happened it would go against IOC rules, since they demand that the Games be held in just one city, but such rules can be and are broken. Indeed, Pyeongchang is not actually a city, either, and many of the 2018 ice events are to take place in distant Gangneung, which is actually by the seaside.

Were North Korea to suggest some kind of co-hosting at a later date (or were a liberal South Korean lawmaker to raise it in the National Assembly, as is equally probable), conservatives in South Korea would immediately see an attempt to foster internecine South-South conflict (남남갈등) in the run-up to the 2018 party. Conversely, progressives would see North Korea reaching out to the South for talks, using sport as a way through the political minefield. Both perspectives would reflect ingrained proclivities in their adherents, of course, but both would also be arguable. Which is exactly how North Korea likes it.

Progressives would wish to seriously consider the offer in the event that they held political sway nearer the time (especially if seen as likely to win the 2017 presidential poll), and this would create discomfort in the South Korean polity no matter what. Conversely, a conservative administration would almost certainly reject it quite quickly, meaning that the resulting inter-Korean and domestic South Korean tension would inject a sense of unease into the run-up to the Games. The geographic proximity of  Pyeongchang to the North-South border (a short 100km hike) means even the smallest increase in tension would have disproportionate effects. As ever, North Korea would be unable to lose.

Further Readings

Christopher Green, “Up Close and Personal: Dennis Rodman Hits Pyongyang,” Sino-NK, March 1, 2013.

Peter Ward, “All the World’s a Stage. Looking Again at North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics,” Sino-NK, March 25, 2013.

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