‘Luxury’ skiing in North Korea: the Russians allowed behind the border

<span>Kim visited the ‘five-star’ ski resort in the Masik Pass region, which features a hotel, ski service and rental shops, when it opened in 2013. This undated photo was released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.</span><span>Photograph: KCNA/Reuters</span>
Kim visited the ‘five-star’ ski resort in the Masik Pass region, which features a hotel, ski service and rental shops, when it opened in 2013. This undated photo was released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.Photograph: KCNA/Reuters

Gliding down pristine, untouched mountain runs, Olga Shpalok said she was “getting 100% satisfaction”.

After a full day of skiing, the Russian designer from Vladivostok wound down with a visit to her hotel’s well-equipped spa and sauna.

“They said it was very hard to get into the country. But fate smiled upon us,” she said.

Shpalok was part of the first group of foreign tourists to visit North Korea since it shut down its borders at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

In early February, she travelled to the country with 100 other Russian tourists on a four-day skiing trip summed up by the Russian embassy as “Pyongyang opens its doors”.

More than 200 Russian tourists have visited North Korea so far this year in total across three trips in February and March. Their interviews and accounts give a rare insight into life in Kim Jong-un’s regime.

Closely watched by government “minders”, who restricted what they could see and where they could go, the Russian tourists described spending time in otherwise empty luxurious ski resorts. Some said they felt deep unease over the poverty and total control they witnessed.

Russia’s access to the pariah state is no coincidence. It comes at a time when the two countries have been moving closer at an unprecedented pace, triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

North Korea has emerged as Russia’s largest supplier of weapons, shipping artillery shells, missiles and other equipment for Moscow’s continuing war. In exchange, Russia appears to be sending North Korea food, raw materials and parts used in weapons manufacturing, bypassing international sanctions imposed on the country.

Related: Pro snowboarders head to North Korea to test Kim Jong-un’s new ski resort

The Russian tourist groups visiting North Korea illustrate another way Moscow can help Pyongyang. Before the pandemic, an estimated 5,000 westerners visited North Korea every year as part of pricey tours but since Covid-19 the borders have been sealed.

Faced with increasingly tightening international sanctions and a reported food crisis triggered by the pandemic isolation, any hard currency is a welcome addition to Pyongyang’s cash-strapped coffers.

“It’s a telling reflection of the regime’s priorities that North Korea has opted to allow Russian tourists access, yet continues to rebuff appeals from humanitarian organisations pleading for entry,” said Hanna Song, of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul.

The group tours, first announced in January by several Russian tourist agencies, cost $750 (£600). This includes the round-trip air fare to Pyongyang, North Korea’s sole international airport in the capital. Also covered were the domestic flight to the ski resort on North Korea’s eastern coast, the hotel stay, and meals.

The $40 daily ski pass, souvenirs and other expenses, including alcohol and cigarettes, were paid out of pocket in cash.

The tours begin with a two-hour flight from the far-eastern Russian city of Vladivostok to Pyongyang, operated by the North Korean state-owned Air Koryo airlines. It is made up of an ageing fleet of mostly Russian-made Tu-154 aircraft.

“When I boarded the plane, I wondered if we were going to make it at all,” recalled Alexandra Daniyelko, a PR manager from Moscow who joined one of the tours.

On arrival at Pyongyang, the Russian tourists visited central Kim Il-sung Square, bowed to the bronze statues of the late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansu Hill and attended a youth musical performance at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, where members of communist youth groups put on patriotic music and dance performance.

These carefully staged shows are traditionally steeped in government propaganda aimed at instilling North Koreans with national pride and loyalty to Kim’s family, which has ruled ruthlessly since it came to power in 1948.

“I cried at the purity, kindness and talent of these kids,” said Daniyelko, describing the performance.

Another Russian tourist described the children as “perfectly disciplined and obedient”, adding that the local minders confiscated the chocolates that some Russian tourists brought for the children.

But for many on the trip, the holiday truly kicked off on the second day, when the tourists boarded an internal flight to the coastal town of Wonsan near the Masikryong ski resort.

The resort is one of the large-scale construction projects built at the behest of Kim in recent years, thought to have cost £24m. Guests are ferried to the slopes on old Austrian-made gondolas imported from China.

Ahead of the resort’s opening in 2014, a ski-less Kim was photographed in a lift chair smoking a cigarette.

The Russian tourists were told they would be staying at a “five-star Swiss Alps-style resort” which was built on the orders of Kim, himself educated in Switzerland.

Images published on Instagram showed polished hotel rooms, a modern swimming pool, a sauna, a massage area and a hair salon.

“There weren’t any people on the main slopes, which was just perfect,” said Yekaterina Kolomeetsa, a travel blogger from Vladivostok.

Empty ski pistes are hardly surprising considering that there are reportedly just 5,500 skiers among a population of 24 million.

Despite North Korea’s best efforts to present a highly curated image of their country, some Russian tourists said they left disturbed.

“You could sense hopelessness and constant control in the country during the entire trip,” said Shpalok. In Pyongyang, as she rode on a bus with other tourists, she said she rarely saw any cars or people on the roads. “We asked our guides where everyone was. They told us people were happily at work.”

The tourists were strictly forbidden from filming ordinary houses or people and couldn’t venture on walks alone. The few people Shpalok did see looked “short and hungry”, while some children were “barely dressed” despite the cold.

Yulia Mishkova, another Russian tourist, said the trip was worth it for those “looking for a dose of absurdity”.

“I just felt sorry for the frightened North Koreans,” Mishkova said, adding that it was hard to ignore the fact that her daily ski pass cost more than the average monthly salary. “I will not go again for moral and ethical reasons.”

Still, both countries appear to have big plans for the future. According to a report by the government of Primorsky Krai, a region in Russia’s far east on the border of the two countries, North Korea is also building another mass ski resort for Russian tourists that will include 17 hotels, 37 guesthouses and 29 shops.

Tatyana Markova, a representative of the Vostok Intur travel agency, said two hiking trips to North Korea have already been planned for the Russian holidays in May.

“This is just the start,” said a recent advertisement promoting the May tours to North Korea. “Make sure you book your spot fast!”