N. Korea's ski resort embodies leader's passion from childhood in Switzerland

December 02, 2013

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent

BERN, Switzerland--At a ski resort about a two hours' train ride from this Swiss capital, an instructor said he cannot remember an Asian boy he must have taught to ski 17 winters ago.

However, the lad, Kim Jong Un, who later would return home and go on to lead North Korea when his father, Kim Jong Il, died in 2011, undoubtedly acquired a love for skiing on these slopes, and would probably remember his instructor.

"I have no specific memory of him," Kurt Mueller, 49, said in the ski resort of Zweisimmen, of a young Kim Jong Un. "A 10-year-old can ski any of the slopes here at the end of seven lessons. That must have been the case with him."

Now, the North Korean leader is rushing workers and officials to complete a state project to build a large-scale ski resort at Masik Pass, Kangwon province, by year-end. A roller-skating rink, a swimming pool and an equestrian club have also opened recently in Pyongyang and elsewhere in the country.

"If the father was a great lover of cinema, Kim Jong Un has a passion for sports," one South Korean government official said. "He is trying to recreate his life in Europe," another official said.

The Zweisimmen resort features more than 5 kilometers of cable car lines that ply a maximum elevation difference of 1,080 meters. Mueller was part of the seven ski classes that a Bernese international school organized there in the winter of 1996.

Kim Jong Un, then 12, is believed to have taken part in the jaunts, which departed from Bern at 7:45 a.m. on Fridays.

The future North Korean leader, as a young student in Switzerland, showed a strong interest in sports, sources said. His classmates from the time said Kim Jong Un had a love of basketball and swimming.

But the ski resort development at remote Masik Pass is believed to be costing more than 150 billion yen ($1.5 billion), enough to buy more than 2 million tons of rice or more than 4 million tons of corn from China. The expenditure is anything but small for North Korea, where the grain supply runs short by 1 million tons every year.

"Figuratively speaking, a horse will run out of breath trying to make it up to Masik (horse breath) Pass," said one North Korean source. "How can you easily get to such a difficult place?"

A defector from North Korea said popular winter attractions in the country include skating and sledding. About the only people who ever ski are athletes, senior officials and their families, and members of the military who train in alpine marching, the defector said.

Ruediger Frank, a professor of East Asian studies at the University of Vienna, pointed out a parallel in a now-departed constituent state of the former communist bloc.

"East Germany also used sports to tout its openness to the rest of the world," said Frank, who visited North Korea in May and September. "The leader's taste is reflected in politics."

Frank was skeptical about the ski resort project at Masik Pass.

"North Korea's past projects, such as power plant construction, benefited people's lives," he said. "How are they going to stage a political campaign around the latest one?"

Kim Jong Un is believed to be behind North Korea's recent overtures to solicit European companies for exports of high-end sports equipment for use in the reclusive country. The leader has the solid assistance of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, which was established in November 2012.

The country is also pushing various other forms of international sports exchange, but the moribund economy in North Korea makes it unlikely that such moves will catch on with the general public.

Sources in the Swiss government said North Korea in June asked a Swiss firm if it could export 7 million francs (760 million yen, or $7.8 million) worth of chairlifts and cable cars for use at Masik Pass. It also made similar inquiries with two other companies, each in Austria and France.

That was in addition to Pyongyang's inquiries with European firms about possible exports of a swimming pool with a water slide, athletic facilities, luxurious yachts and other items, the sources said.

A delegation of the Nippon Sport Science University in Tokyo is expected to visit Pyongyang in November to engage in a sports exchange for the second consecutive year. There are also plans to have Dennis Rodman, an ex-NBA star, return in December to North Korea, which he visited in September, to play basketball with athletes of the country.

But the international community is giving a cold shoulder to such acts of courting by the hermit state.

The government of Switzerland concluded that the swimming pool and the ski resort facilities fell in the category of "luxury goods," which are covered by the U.N. Security Council resolution to place sanctions on North Korea, and advised the Swiss firm against exporting them. Switzerland in July added equipment associated with luxurious sports facilities, including horseback riding and golf, to its embargo list.

The Austrian and French companies also rejected the export requests.

A spokesman for North Korea's Skiers Association denounced those moves in August. The online Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, on Oct. 23 played down the impact of the export refusals by saying that the Masik Pass ski resort is ready to open, except only for the chairlifts.

"I was told that members of the general public do not ski in North Korea," a Swiss government official said. "Pyongyang's protests are a politically staged stunt."

By YOSHIHIRO MAKINO/ Correspondent
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, accompanied by senior officials, tours a ski resort being built by the Korean People's Army at Masik Pass, Kangwon province. This undated photo was distributed May 26 by the Korean Central News Agency. (Korea News Service)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, accompanied by senior officials, tours a ski resort being built by the Korean People's Army at Masik Pass, Kangwon province. This undated photo was distributed May 26 by the Korean Central News Agency. (Korea News Service)

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  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, accompanied by senior officials, tours a ski resort being built by the Korean People's Army at Masik Pass, Kangwon province. This undated photo was distributed May 26 by the Korean Central News Agency. (Korea News Service)
  • Kim Jong Un, as a young student in Switzerland, frequented a ski resort in Zweisimmen, seen here on Sept. 24. (Yoshihiro Makino)

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