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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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