Experts are questioning how North Korea paid for its swanky ski resorts

ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
  • North Korea has two large ski resorts, estimated to have cost millions of dollars to build.
  • The Masikryong resort’s $US40 ticket price remains out of reach for most in North Koreans, where the per-capita income in 2016 was estimated to be about about $US1,340.
  • The resorts symbolise the disparity between the growing upper-class comprised of those close to the Kim Jong -Un regime and the rest of North Korea.

South Korea last week sent a group of athletes to North Korea’s prized Masikryong ski resort for a joint training program before the Pyeongchang Olympics, thrusting the Kingdom’s curiously ornate resort into international spotlight.

North Korea claims the resort cost about $US300 million to build, and says it sees 70,000 visitors every year. Other estimates put the building costs at closer to $US30 million.

The resort’s facilities include 120 hotel rooms, a swimming pool, bars, caf├ęs, billiard tables, a karaoke room, a steam room and a dry sauna.

In addition to Masikryong, North Korea last month opened a second ski lodge amid increased optimism about participating in the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics.

The new and smaller resort in Kanggye was reportedly hastily completed “in a short period of less than a month,” according to an official North Korean website. An official state news source saidKanggye is said to have two ski resorts, a square, a service building, a water source, and a parking lot, and reportedly covers 12 acres with a 530-meter (1,740 foot) main slope.

The resorts are a testament to Kim Jong Un’s love of snow sports and taste for flashy displays of wealth, despite the fact that North Korea remains one of the world’s poorest countries and continues to be crippled by economic sanctions.

It is unclear where the money came from

A general view of the Masikryong ski resortED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Experts say that when looking into North Korean finances, finding a paper trail can be tricky.

Bruce Bennett, Senior International and Defence Researcher at the RAND corporation told Business Insider that it is unclear whether the resort was paid for by the North Korean treasury or by the Kim family itself, which is reported to have at least $US4 billion in overseas bank accounts.

North Korean elite also reportedly profit from illicit sales of drugs, counterfeit money, and cigarettes.

More recent reports have also linked several high-stakes bitcoin heists back to the Kim regime, which may point to North Korea’s shifting interest in cryptocurrencies as a way to subvert financial sanctions.

“Most of the labour appears to have been by the North Korean Army, so in a sense the North Korean treasury clearly paid for a lot of the resort,” Bennett said.

According to the BBC, some human-rights groups have accused the resort of using forced labour to build its facilities in a short period of time, which would have allowed the regime to cut labour costs.

In addition, China had a major role in fighting at the UN on behalf of North Korea to allow the import of snow mobiles and other equipment to the resort, according to The New York Times, as they argued the equipment didn’t violate sanctions.

Still, not many people in North Korea can afford to go skiing

An Italian-made Areco snow cannon sits on the beginner slope in front of the Masikryong Hotel at the new Masik Ski Resort January 29, 2014 near Wonsan in northeastern North Korea. The screen displays music videos of popular North Korean songs, as well as statistics about mountain conditions. The resort reportedly boasts a 250-room, eight-story hotel for foreigners, 10 ski runs and is thought to have cost $US300 million.Jean H. Lee/Getty Images

While the North Korean government claims the resort sees 70,000 visitors a year, the reality on the ground paints a different picture.

While the resort boasts 120 lavish hotel rooms and modern facilities, several reports have said the resort is sparse.

According to Newsweek, two Brits visited the facilities in 2017 to film a documentary and reported that there were fewer people than other resorts of similar size.

The duo also told Newsweek that they saw “up to 50 North Koreans on the lower slopes who were all wearing matching uniforms,” while the upper slopes remained mostly empty.

The pair were left wondering why some North Koreans were allowed to ski and others weren’t, Newsweek said.

According to Bennett, North Korea has a small number of elite members who have made money overseas, and they are likely among the only ones who can afford to visit the facilities.

Additionally, the ticket price for the resort seems less than affordable for most in the regime.

A one-day lift pass with ski hire cost locals $US40, which remains out of reach for most North Koreans, whose per capita income was estimated in December to be about 1.46 million won, or about $US1,340.

“The resort would be dedicated to the growing upper class and to friends of Kim Jong-un,” Bennett said.

Ultimately, Bennett says, the resort was built for one person, Kim Jong Un, who reportedly developed a love for skiing while studying in Switzerland as a teenager.

North Korea’s strong upper class

Kim jong un skiliftTwitterKim Jong Un riding a ski lift.

The resort symbolises the disparity between the growing upper class and the rest of North Korea.

According to Bennett, the wealthy upper class is expanding, and those within Kim’s circle can afford more than what the regime provides for its other residents.

Upper class residents and those close to the Kim regime reportedly receive care packages from the state, which allow them to live significantly lusher lives than the average citizen.

Dr Leonid Petrov, visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific told news.com.au that North Korea’s economy is growing, but only for a select few.

“Some segments of the population are more exposed to money and markets, devices and gadgets and communication, but only a small proportion,” Petrov said.

Experts have said that money from tourism, hotels, and other luxury goods likely go straight into the regime’s funding, which may go back into the pockets of the people who can afford a vacation at Masikryong.

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