What is it like to ski in North Korea?

One of the first foreign visitors, Jean Lee, filmed the deserted slopes and high-spec hotel complex at the Masik Pass Resort

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North Korea is not known for its winter sports - it does not have a single athlete at the Sochi Winter Olympics. But that has not stopped it opening a high-end ski resort in its eastern mountains. The Masik Pass Resort is "the most exotic ski destination on Earth", according to one tour operator - and perhaps also the most controversial. Lucy Williamson spoke to one of the first foreign tourists to visit.

There are not many ways to relax in North Korea. And so, in a society beset by political and economic challenges, the country's young leader has made leisure facilities a priority.

Since coming to power, he has opened a water-park and a dolphinarium, tested out new fairground rides, invited a team of American basketball stars over for an exhibition match and opened a ski resort.

Visitors say the Masik Pass Resort is accessed via a military-style checkpoint and it takes three separate ski-lifts to reach the top of the slopes. But at least there is plenty of room - this is a hobby reserved for North Korea's elite.

This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 31 December 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspecting a ski resort on Masik Pass to be completed in Kangwon province North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made leisure facilities a priority

Not only for them though. Their government is hoping to attract foreign tourists to the resort, too. So there are signs in English, high-tech swipe cards for skiers and Western alcohol on the menu.

Jean Lee was one of the first foreigners to use the slopes. She used to work as a journalist in North Korea, so she filmed it.

"It was surreal, very surprising. There's very little development on the road between Pyongyang and the [resort area] of Wonsan, so it's an interesting contrast to see that," she said.

"They have poured a lot of money and resources into this resort. What surprised me was how well they had built it, considering that it was only 10 months in construction."

Kim Jong-un may have put a lot of money into promoting fun, but he also likes to spend the country's meagre income on nuclear weapons and a huge standing army. And the sanctions that are meant to curb that habit have not stopped high-tech luxuries like foreign ski equipment from turning up here.

Swiss companies were banned from supplying ski lifts to the Masik Pass Resort because of sanctions prohibiting the export of luxury goods to North Korea. But Ms Lee and others have spotted several high-end international brands of equipment being used by the resort.

Jean Lee, a journalist who used to work in North Korea Jean Lee, a journalist who used to work in North Korea, filmed her experience at the ski resort

The tour operator who arranged the trip, Uritours, bills it as "a destination for seasoned travellers". Its CEO, Andrea Lee, says she is aware of the challenges involved in choosing North Korea as a holiday destination.

"We're very aware of the ethical issues, that's always something you have to overcome as a tourist, [but] there's a value to tourism," she said.

"It's a great way to get to know the local people, even if you can't see all of the country, and it's great for North Koreans to get to know foreigners. It's not easy to make friends in North Korea, but sport transcends barriers."

'Hounded'

Jean Lee agrees that the ski resort allows foreigners unusual freedom to interact.

"Normally when you go to North Korea, it's hard to get the locals to talk, but in this particular circumstance, they were chasing me down," she said.

"So we would have skiers waiting for us at every corner, grilling us with questions about how to snowboard. 'Where did I learn?' 'Where did I put my weight on the board?' 'Where did I learn to ski?' It's the first time I've been hounded by North Koreans, rather than me hounding them!"

The country's richer neighbour, South Korea, has been trying for years to attract tourists to its own resorts.

North Korea's selling-point, of course, is precisely that it is so isolated, so unknown. But the question many people have is whether this kind of "sports diplomacy" will help to open up the regime or just to bankroll it.

North Korea enjoys competing internationally at sporting events. None of its athletes have qualified for the Sochi Games, but Pyongyang's Olympic representative has already expressed ambitions to host future tournaments at the country's new resort.

Too late for the 2018 Winter Olympics though - that bid went to South Korea.

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