Chairlift Diplomacy: Socialist Skiing in North Korea

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For more than half a century the nation of North Korea has been shrouded in mystery. Since the end of its war with the United States few western travelers have been inclined to visit this socialist country of more 24 million people. Presumed to be a place of profound misery where an impoverished population is repressed under extreme government subjugation and non-stop political propaganda, North Korea is hardly a popular tourist destination.

But this winter when it was announced that North Korea would open its first downhill ski resort, adventure journalist Tim Neville and photographer Dan Patitucci were immediately curious. Masik Ryong Ski Resort is a new facility that stands in direct contrast to North Korea’s cultural values that espouse austerity and communal sacrifice for the good of the whole. Despite strained diplomatic relations with the west this isolated republic is now prepared to welcome travelers to enjoy a recreational activity that few of its citizens will likely ever experience.

“Legions of “soldier-builders” from the Korean People’s Army had hacked the birch-tree hillsides of 1,362m-high Taehwa Peak into 11 north-facing runs,” Neville wrote in Swissinfo.com. “Below them stood two trapezoidal hotels with 120 rooms, a swimming pool, karaoke bar and pleasing restaurants serving pickled fern, sesame-seed-encrusted salmon and juicy slabs of beef. Never mind that millions of North Koreans are malnourished and have no electricity. This “miracle of socialist construction” had taken only one year to complete and yet a huge question still lingered: why build it at all?”

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Dan Patitucci on assignment in North Korea

The fascinating story of Neville and Patitucci’s travels through North Korea will appear this fall in the pages of Ski Magazine. Captivating photographs of people at play in the middle of a totalitarian regime illustrate the role that recreation serves in any society and how it is viewed by the rest of the world. On this ski hill where east meets west its possible through this form of “chairlift diplomacy” that our two markedly different cultures can find some common ground. But it may also instead further propagate the illusion that North Korea is a nation of free and happy people. Patitucci shares his experience in this interview.

JTP
How did you manage to get the assignment with Tim Neville to photograph North Korea’s Masik Ryong Ski Resort?

Patitucci:
We saw the news about the ski resort and both immediately thought of it as a story possibility. Tim moved first and checked in with Ski Magazine, who immediately took it. They were the logical choice as we together had done a story similar on skiing in Kosovo – they’re open to these really different pieces about what the culture of skiing can do for a country. I’ve worked with Tim a lot and we’ve proven that we do these projects well together.

JTP:
What was in like moving around North Korea? I understand that it is very secretive country that closely monitors visitors. Did you have a minder following your every move?

JTP:
You have no freedom, ever. You are on a fixed agenda with two North Korean guides serving as minders and telling you what you can shoot photos of. You see and hear all about the North Korean version of history and how supreme their leaders are. You can shoot photos of about 20% of what you see. It wasn’t until we got to the ski resort that we finally felt a sense of freedom, because they couldn’t ski with us and the ski resort itself is isolated and you can’t see much anyway.

JTP:
What was the skiing like? Was it similar to what we have here in the west or was it markedly different?

Patitucci:
The skiing was surprisingly good, the resort nice. The elevation is low and it is near the sea, so the snow wasn’t perfect, but it was good. Overall, it’s a small and simple ski resort, like anything you’d find in the US.

JTP:
Was there anything that you didn’t have with you on your trip that you really wish you and brought? A piece of camera equipment? Climbing/skiing hardware? etc…

Patitucci:
As a photographer, I had all I needed. You want to keep things simple, you don’t want to stand out as being too interested in making photos. On a personal level to, all fine. It is a pretty normal Asian travel experience. Remember, they are showing their best for tourists so you are comfortable, nothing was too unusual.

JTP:
Was there anything about North Korea that particularly surprised you? Did you experience something that you didn’t expect?

Patitucci:
Only it’s normalcy. Pyongyang feels and looks mostly normal. But then you have these reality checks, “Wait, this is North Korea….!, It’s far from normal”. It was a strange feeling being in a city and yet there is almost no business to be seen, very few stores and no visible services – and yet people are all walking around like they have something to do, dressed well, with briefcases, etc… Tourists are constantly asking, “What are they all doing?” It’s a modern city, yet at night it would be very dark, with very few lights. Propaganda is everywhere – these huge billboard monitors showing video of everything from cherry blossoms to missiles exploding, all the while reminding the people of the great workers party to which they belong. North Koreans are bombarded with this stuff, every day of their lives…

JTP:
Was there anything about North Korea that you found disappointing? We hear a lot about starving people and rampant poverty. Were there any sweeping disparities that you could observe in how people appeared to be treated?

Patitucci:
You don’t see anything negative, zero. It’s hidden away where tourists don’t go. All you see is opulence and modern museums to the “Great Leaders” – things that cost a fortune. You become furious that they could spend this money if at the same time people are starving. But you do see hints of the oddity; no cars, propaganda everywhere, strange rules, and a feeling of something being very “off”.

JTP:
What’s the most important thing that you want people to know about your experience in North Korea?
Patitucci:
That the ski resort is a way for the people of two different worlds to come together, through tourism and skiing – and that this meeting puts a face to the “other side”. Being at Masik ski resort was the only time we actually mingled with North Koreans without being monitored – and it was all positive. They saw us as nice people, we saw them as nice people. People being people. Maybe it’s a start, a small piece of the outside world influencing them.

JTP:
Would you suggest that people make the effort to visit North Korea? If so, how hard is it get there?
Patitucci:
While fascinating, it’s certainly not for everyone. After only a couple of days people were all kind of ready to get out. You are completely fed this propaganda about their leaders and how wonderful they are and how they are a victim of the evil American and Japanese Imperialists. For them the war is still going on. So this stuff gets old, fast. Each day was a mix of strange fascination with how it has all gone so far combined with a sense of utter disbelief in how it all works.
Getting in is easy, there are a few tour services that provide entry. You have to go in with one of them. The big one, who we used, is Koryo Tours. http://www.koryogroup.com

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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