MASIK PASS, North Korea - For North Korean skiers, Sochi was a distant dream. The country didn't send a single athlete to the Winter Olympics and has never won a downhill medal. But as the rest of the world watches this year's Olympic pageant wrap up in Russia, North Koreans are flocking to the slopes of a lavish new ski resort all their own — and many have a gold medal in mind four years from now, when the winter games will be held in South Korea.
Of course, that's a tall order.
Even by official estimates, only about 0.02 per cent of North Korea's 24 million people have ever strapped on ski boots. But with the blessing of leader Kim Jong Un, who has made building recreational and sporting facilities a priority, in part to boost tourism as a source of hard cash for the economically strapped nation, skiing is now almost a national duty for those who have the time, money or opportunity to hit the slopes.
North Korea's newest symbol of national pride and "single-minded unity," the ski resort at Masik Pass, nestled deep in the country's eastern mountains, is an impressive site. It has 10 ski runs, from beginning to advanced, a well-equipped rental shop, and a 250-room, eight-story hotel for foreigners alongside a 150-room hotel for Koreans. There's a deluxe swimming pool, lifts up to the top of scenic Taehwa Peak, an underground parking area and a helipad for VIPs or medical emergencies.
With little more knowledge of skiing than what they have seen on TV, most of the skiers at Masik — predominantly North Koreans visiting in large groups affiliated with their workplaces, neighbourhoods or other official affiliations — brave the runs without any lessons. Wipeouts are frequent. There are no reliable figures on the number of serious injuries that have occurred since the resort opened earlier this winter, nor on the total number of skiers who have visited.
"We've got to do that again," Jong Hyang Mi, a 32-year-old worker from Pyongyang, said after crashing spectacularly through a safety net at the bottom of one of the beginner slopes. "This is so much fun. I am so grateful to our leader."
Sochi — which has been highlighted in North Korea's state-run media — has provided an extra impetus to the country's new-found fascination with skiing.
Masik was floated as a potential venue for the 2018 games, but Seoul turned that offer down. North Korean officials say Masik will nevertheless be used as a training centre. They vow 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 speedskating.
"I've been watching the Olympic skiing on television," said 26-year-old Kang Ok Kyong, who works at a car repair shop in Pyongyang and came to the resort recently by bus with Jong and 10 of her friends and co-workers. "I think our country will have good skiers soon. We will get a gold medal in the next Olympics."
On a recent afternoon, Masik's rental shop was crowded with local skiers, virtually all of them first-timers. There were not enough skiers to create longs lines for any of the lifts, however, and the advanced slopes were essentially deserted, save a few instructors and athletes in training. Also, lest anyone forget this is North Korea, patriotic songs such as "The Party Flag" and "I Think Only of Him" ("him" being Kim Jong Un) echoed through the mountains from a strategically placed megascreen nonstop from early morning to late night.
Projects like Masik are often criticized abroad as golden albatrosses that suck money away from more pressing concerns in North Korea — such as building the nation's basic infrastructure, improving its electrical grid or providing more food to its people, who according to international aid agencies are still often not getting an adequate diet.
But Masik — completed after 10 months of furious labour by specially mobilized "shock brigades" of soldier-builders — has been intensely portrayed domestically as a concrete example of Kim's concern for his people and of the nation's ability to successfully build whatever it sets its mind to, be that a first-rate ski resort or a viable nuclear weapons program.
On the slopes, that line was repeated frequently during interviews with skiers, who were mostly from Pyongyang, though a smattering of foreigners, generally with foreign-based tour groups that tout Masik as the world's most exotic ski resort, were also visible.
"The Marshal Kim Jong Un worked very hard to build this resort, and if (national founder) Kim Il Sung and (the late) leader Kim Jong Il could have come here, I am sure they would be pleased to see all of our smiling faces," said 53-year-old Ri Yong Hui, who came to Masik from Pyongyang with her daughter's family.
Kim and his coterie of 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 accouterments 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.
Officials at the resort refused to say how much North Koreans must pay to use the slopes and rent their gear — for foreign guests the price is $27 for four hours, which would be prohibitively high for most local skiers. The cost of a night's stay in the hotel for foreigners — upward of $100 — would also be too steep for most North Koreans.