North and South Korea agreed Wednesday that skiers from both sides will train in the North's Masikryong Ski Resort, but the equipment at the prestige facility appears to be hopelessly out of date.
Nam Sung-wook at Korea University and other North Korea experts have criticized the agreement as giving the resort undeserved international exposure and warned that paying for use of the facilities could violate UN sanctions.
Located in North Korea's Kangwon Province on the east coast, the 14 million sq.m ski resort has 10 slopes and a 250-room hotel. North Korea started building it in March 2013, a year after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un rose to power. It opened later the same year after Kim personally visited the site to urge workers to speed things up. He boarded one of the ski lifts himself at the grand opening.
But the rushed construction apparently caused safety problems. North Korea planned to buy a US$7.5 million ski lift from Switzerland, but sanctions threw a spanner in the works, so the regime simply moved ski lifts from a nearby resort built in the 1970s and 80s.
A source said the lifts have repeatedly been shut down due to accidents.
Kim is desperately seeking new sources of hard currency by promoting leisure and tourism projects and has invited foreigners living in Pyongyang to ski at the resort. But it is mostly empty except for a few visitors from China and Russia. Ordinary North Koreans cannot afford the high fees.
One source said it costs up to $34 a day for ski rentals and almost 10 times more for a hotel room. "That is unimaginable for North Koreans except for a few elite officials," the source added.
Vice Unification Minister ChunHae-sung told reporters that the athletes scheduled to train in Masikryong are not Olympic skiers, but promising athletes. But critics wonder what benefits South Korean athletes could gain.
A source at the South's Korea Ski Association said, "Our ski facilities are among the best in the world, so what could we possibly gain from training in outdated facilities that don't even meet international standards?"