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All this is reflected in North Korea’s otherwise head-scratch-inducing association with former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who had Kim’s ear and received the red carpet treatment both times he visited this year.
In Pyongyang, a plethora of recreational sports parks, basketball courts and inline skating rinks have popped up over the past several months. Very few North Koreans could afford Masik Pass, but the leadership could offer trips as rewards for loyalty or exceptional work.
Planners foresee droves of tourists making the drive after arriving by airplane at a converted military airbase in the nearest city, Wonsan. The resort also has its own heliport.
"All of Wonsan will be turned into a tourist area," Ri Ki Song, an economist for the Institute of Economy at North Korea’s Academy of Social Science, said in a recent interview in Pyongyang. "It will have a big impact on the economy. We are now trying to build a lot of tourism sites, and skiing is the kind of sport that developed countries enjoy. It will also be a place for our own people to use."
Many outside economists argue that if it’s serious about improving its economy, North Korea should implement market reforms, build its energy and agricultural sectors and improve international relations by focusing less on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
"Certainly, the calculus is different in North Korea than in most places — they’ve demonstrated pretty consistently that economic efficiency is not the priority," said Andray Abrahamian, executive director of Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based nonprofit that aims to build North Korean business savvy and economic growth.
But Abrahamian said Masik is not merely a gilded albatross.
"These kinds of projects are no more a boondoggle than say, hosting the Olympics or the World Cup," he said. "The financial costs are very high, but the broader social gains — which don’t show up on a balance sheet — are deemed to be higher. Nationalism, civic pride, health, urban regeneration, tourism dollars, construction projects for cronies — all these things come into consideration."
Though the actual ski season begins around December, officials plan to open the resort Oct. 10, the 68th anniversary of the Korean Workers Party.
Kim Jong Un has visited the site twice, most recently last month. "Masik Pass Speed" has joined the long list of North Korean propaganda accolades for those who selflessly carry out the orders of their rulers.
With the clock ticking, the pace is frenetic. North Korean media recently claimed workers are "carrying out their daily quotas at more than 200 percent."
As recently as last week, worker brigades were scrambling to finish not only the two main hotels — a 250-room, eight-story building for foreigners and a 150-room hotel for Koreans — but also an underground parking lot, employee housing and access bridges and a pumping station.
The resort won’t be finished by Thursday; Kim Tae Yong, the ski association chief, said much of it will be built in phase two.
His only concern: the ski lifts.
Last month, the Swiss government nixed plans for a company to sell North Korea 7 million francs ($7.7 million) worth of lifts and cable car equipment because of new sanctions barring the sale of luxury goods to the North. Austrian and French ski-lift manufacturers also have reportedly said no.
North Korea’s state-run media has called the Swiss decision a "serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans." Kim called it "a pity," but said Masik Pass will have three functioning lifts this year.
"We can make nuclear weapons and rockets," he said. "We can build a ski lift."
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