North Korea’s abrupt cancellation of a joint cultural event this week leaves only one venue in the country that will host events for next month’s Winter Olympics: Kim Jong Un’s luxury ski resort.
South Korean skiers will begin training Wednesday at North Korea’s Masikryong resort as part of an agreement to spur reconciliation ahead of the Games starting February 9 in South Korea. North Korea on Monday scrapped a joint cultural performance at Mount Kumgang, a resort built while Kim’s father was in power, in a move that revealed underlying tensions between the nations.
“Seeing South Koreans practice at a place he built is a propaganda coup for Kim,” said Lee Su-seok, a North Korea analyst at South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy. “Masikryong represents his era, and he is relying on the ski resort rather than the 20-year-old mountain resort to emerge from his father’s shadow.”
North Korea is seeking to capitalise on South Korea’s desire for a peaceful Winter Games as international sanctions over its nuclear arms programme further squeeze its finances. Trade with China — North Korea’s main financial backer — shrank by more than half last month, the latest evidence of what Kim earlier this month called the “unprecedented impediments” his country has faced.
While South Korea currently bans tourists from travelling north, the thaw over the Olympics brings the countries closer to dialogue on restoring lucrative cross-border tours that once brought Kim’s regime millions of dollars a year. The free advertising for his ski resort may also attract more visitors from China, which sends more tourists to North Korea than any other country. Until a travel ban last year, the number of US visitors was believed to hover at about 1,000 a year. Those with special permission to travel are now advised to draft a will and discuss funeral arrangements.