MASIK PASS, NORTH KOREA – To view the humbling limits of round after round of international sanctions against North Korea, come to Masik Pass. It isn’t a secret military facility where Kim Jong Un’s best and brightest are hard at work developing nuclear warheads and long-range missiles.
It’s a ski resort.
The U.N. has been trying for years to punish North Korea for its nuclear program by barring trade not only in weapons but in luxury items, in hopes of making Pyongyang’s elite feel some pain. If they feel pain at Masik Pass, it’s more likely because they’ve had a tumble on their French Rossignol skis.
The resort boasts the amenities of a first-world ski destination — a luxury hotel, a half-dozen upscale restaurants and a well-equipped, professionally staffed ski rental shop. Visitors can stock up on European chocolates, drink their fill of Heineken beer, even buy T-shirts with themselves and the slopes Photoshopped and emblazoned across the back.
Imported snowmobiles from China were buzzing up and down its slopes even as the U.N. Security Council was discussing how to crack down after the North’s latest nuclear test in January and subsequent rocket launch. Despite an occasional power outage, its Doppelmayr chairlifts from Austria were working just fine.
To its critics, Masik Pass is a shining example of how Kim’s regime has been able to pour resources into prestige projects and flaunt restrictions designed to block its access to imported luxury items, set through four prior rounds of U.N. sanctions. Part of the problem is that countries disagree over what items are banned.
Masik is also important because it is a signature project of Kim Jong Un himself. It opened in 2013, just two years after Kim, who lived in Switzerland when he was a teenager, assumed power.
Adding salt to the wounds of ardent sanctions supporters, the resort has become a big hit with Western tourists.
Though exact figures on how many have gone and how much they have spent are not available, Masik Pass is part of package tours offered by the main tourism agencies that specialize in North Korea, which has for several years been trying hard to build its still-nascent tourism sector.
Andreas Hofer, a well-traveled skier and lawyer from Austria who recently visited the resort, described it as “surprising, and full of unexpected luxury.” He rated its slopes as somewhat less than stellar for the true ski enthusiast, but gave it bonus points for being among the most exotic ski locations on the planet.
“Nobody from abroad will come for the skiing only,” he said in an interview by email. “They want to have an idea about new ways and developments in North Korea. And the hospitality and friendliness and welcoming are ample compensation for the more limited skiing.”
North Korea, which obviously opposes the sanctions, argues that skiing isn’t a luxury anyway, but a sport for the masses.
Masik, it claims, has opened up the door for the country to provide large numbers of common people with recreation enjoyed by millions all over the world. It’s a facility where the North can train serious skiers who may one day compete internationally, maybe even in the upcoming Winter Games — which, it’s worth noting, will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.
Indeed, most skiers on Masik are North Korean. Many come in groups organized by their work units, trade or community associations or schools. The prices for North Koreans are far lower than for foreigners and the lodgings are much more modest.
But Washington, the strongest advocate of sanctions, sees Masik within the larger context of cracking down on any income streams Pyongyang can use to fund its nuclear program, or reward the North Korean elite for their loyalty to the regime.
“We have eyes on how they spend their money, what they look at, what merchandise, what goods that they purchase from abroad. We try to target those to limit, frankly, their ability to enjoy themselves,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a recent news conference.
Actually cracking down, however, has been a challenge.
According to the latest U.N. Security Council report examining enforcement of sanctions, efforts have been severely undermined by the North’s ability to use its diplomatic missions abroad to get the goods it wants. It also has acquired goods in roundabout ways that involve passage through multiple countries. Manufacturers, it said, often have “no idea about their final destination.”
The report also noted that not all countries agree on what they are supposed to be banning to begin with.
Sanctioned luxury items range from caviar and gems to yachts and limousines. But each country is essentially allowed to choose what it does or does not ban. That gives the North a lot of wiggle room.
In a section devoted to Masik Pass, the report said Beijing acknowledges Chinese companies provided ski lifts and other equipment but said it was “of the view that skiing is a popular sport for people, and ski equipment or relative services are not included in the list of prohibited luxury goods.”
Other countries interpreted the same luxury goods category to include such things as snowmobiles and certain makes of snow groomers.
“This creates a situation of uneven practice by member states,” the report concluded.
Masik’s success and past failures to enforce sanctions have exasperated Washington.
“China does not enforce the mandated ban on luxury goods,” Bonnie Glaser, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in testimony before the U.S. Congress in January. “Chinese customs data shows that North Korea imported $2.09 billion worth of luxury goods between 2012 and 2014.”
Her conclusion? Washington should consider sanctioning Beijing, too.
The latest sanctions on North Korea, announced by the Security Council earlier this month, try to close some of those loopholes.
Explicitly banned are “luxury watches: wrist, pocket, and other with a case of precious metal or of metal clad with precious metal;” “aquatic recreational vehicles (such as personal watercraft);” “items of lead crystal;” and “recreational sports equipment.”
And just to make sure everyone is on the same page, the Security Council added: “snowmobiles (valued greater than $2,000).”