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North Korea

Inside Switzerland's Decision To Bury Kim Jong-Un's Ski Resort Dreams

After rejections by Austrian and French ski-lift companies, a Swiss competitor was set to supply Pyongyang the means to realize his Alpine fantasy. But then the state stepped in.

Skiim Jong-un...
Skiim Jong-un...
Céline Zünd

GENEVA - Kim Jong-un is moving heaven and earth to build a top-of-the-heap ski slope, inspired by the most spectacular Swiss ski resorts. The North Korean leader spent part of his teenage years in Switzerland, and was in fact introduced to winter sports on the slopes of Zweisimmen and Grindelwald.

The young dictator has promised that “ski fever” will seize the country in 2014, according to the official North Korean press agency KCNA.

The construction of 110 kilometers of ski slopes, a heliport and a hotel in the Masik mountain chain in the southeast of the country is keeping North Korean soldiers busy. Eight slopes have already been marked out — now all that is missing are the ski lifts.

Indeed, this past spring North Korean authorities approached Swiss manufacturer Bartholet Maschinenbau AG (BMF) to order a ski-lift set that combined a chairlift and a cable car worth 7 million Swiss francs ($7.6 million). But just when the deal was set to be sealed, it was blocked by the decision of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) to extend its sanctions against North Korea, in accordance with the Swiss Federal Council’s verdict on July 3.

The new guidelines add equipment for “luxury sporting facilities,” which includes ski resorts, to the list of products banned from being exported to Pyongyang by UN sanctions. The North Koreans are convinced that Switzerland introduced these sanctions in order to derail their plans for the ski resort.

Marie Avet from the Economic Affairs office denies this: “We have only applied the decisions made by the United Nations.”

In March 2013, the day after North Korea carried out its third nuclear test, the UN decided to apply stricter sanctions against Pyongyang. And, according to Bern, the ski station is intended, above all, for use by the elite and will reinforce “the prestige and the propaganda of the regime.”

Counting on "Swiss neutrality"

The North Koreans were particularly disappointed as they had pinned their last hopes of obtaining high-quality equipment — vital to reassure the European, Chinese and Japanese tourists that they hope to attract to their slopes — on Swiss neutrality.

Originally they had contacted the world's top ski-lift maker, Austrian company Doppelmayr. “They refused to sell for political reasons,” explains Ekkehard Assmann, an executive at Doppelmayr, which has also been commissioned to build the sporting infrastructures for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyongyang’s archrival state — South Korea.

The North Korean authorities therefore turned to the President of the International Ski Federation (FIS), Gian-Franco Kasper, who confirms that he was approached on several occasions. “I wrote a letter to explain that ski-lifts are not luxury products. Our job is to support skiing and we want there to be ski resorts all over the world, even in North Korea.”

The FIS President has not yet replied to the invitation from Pyongyang encouraging him to visit the site in person: “I do not want to be seen with North Korean politicians.” But the letter from the FIS was not enough to convince either Doppelmayr to do business with the North Koreans, or the world No. 2, French ski lift company Pomalgalski, from whom the North Koreans attempted in vain to buy material in August 2012.

That left Swiss manufacturer BMF, which did not see any reason to reject this new client — despite its controversial reputation. As a precaution, the company contacted the Swiss Economic Office at the start of June and they were told that the sale was legal, though not recommended given the tensions on the Korean peninsula. Even so, Roland Bartholet explained to the news outlet SonntagsZeitung: “Exportation posed no problems. The civil population as well as the regime would be able to use the facilities.”

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