North Korea's controversy-ridden ski resort to be used as training facility by two Koreas

This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on December 31, 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) inspecting a ski resort on Masik Pass to be completed in Kangwon province.
PHOTO: AFP

Seoul and Pyongyang announced Wednesday night that a joint training exercise of their skiers will take place at Masikryong Ski Resort in North Korea ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

It was agreed that South Korean officials will visit the resort from Jan. 23-25 to check the facility, which will be followed by a joint training exercise there. The South Korean players sent there, however, will not be members of the South Korean national team that will compete in the Olympics, but those recommended by the Korea Ski Association.

Masikryong Ski Resort is one of North Korea's most heavily promoted and expensive projects under its current leader Kim Jong-un. The Swiss-educated Kim is said to be an avid skier.

Located in Wonsan, Gangwon Province -- on the North Korean side -- the ski resort is estimated to have cost US$35 million (S$46.3 million) to build. According to North Korean reports, it has 10 slopes of varying difficulties and can accommodate 250 foreign guests and 150 North Korean visitors.

The communist nation has attempted to bring the ski resort into the international spotlight by inviting world-famous celebrities like former Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki and former NBA star Dennis Rodman, also a personal friend of Kim.

The North has reportedly been seeking to attract foreign visitors to the ski resort, in a bid to earn foreign currency.

British media outlet the Guardian visited the facility and described it as "fairly well built, though one can see that it was done fast and some of the trimmings are less than perfect."

A Korea Ski Association official told local media that the resort meets the International Ski Federation's requirements as a training facility.

But the quality of slopes, hotels and accompanying facilities are not so much a problem as the suspicion of the use of child labour in building and maintaining the resort.

Last year, footage revealed by NBC showed workers labouring in the freezing cold to keep roads open, some of whom clearly appeared to be children. The revelation sparked furor and condemnation from around the world, with groups like US-based Human Rights calling on the UN to pressure the North to stop child labour.

There have been criticisms within South Korea about the North taking advantage of this opportunity to promote its facility and its dictatorial leadership.

"Masikryong resort opened in 2013, and North Korea is busy promoting it because not enough foreigners are visiting. For our players to train there is preposterous," said Rep. Na Kyung-won of the Liberty Korea Party on TBS radio. "I think (the Olympics) are being used for North Korean propaganda."

Those from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea refuted the claim by saying that the joint practice would contribute to establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.

"I don't think it's necessarily bad, allowing the North to take the opportunity and showcase the Masikryong resort," said Rep. Park Young-sun of the Democratic Party while appearing on the same radio show. "Both sides giving in little by little and keeping a line of communication open could be a small step toward peace."