How elitist is North Korea’s ski resort?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attended boarding school in Bern as a young boy - it's said that is where he learned to ski Keystone

Officials whose sanctions prevented delivery of a Swiss-made ski lift to North Korea called it an elitist “propaganda project”. But a politician with intimate knowledge of the country and the Swiss ski lift builder see things differently.

This content was published on August 20, 2013 minutes

On Sunday, the SonntagsZeitung newspaper first reported that the planned delivery of a ski lift system to Kim Jong-Un’s government had been stopped in early July by the introduction of sanctions against “infrastructure installations and equipment for luxury sport facilities”.

According to the newspaper, the regime, whose young leader reportedly learned to ski while attending boarding school in Bern, is planning a luxury ski resort with 110 kilometres of runs, hotels, ski lifts and a helicopter landing pad.

“Given North Korea’s political and economic background, it’s inconceivable that this project would be used by the general public,” said Marie Avet, spokesperson for the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). “Right now, hardly anyone in North Korea even skis.”

Nuclear tests, human rights violations bring tougher sanctions

On March 7 of this year, following a new round of nuclear tests by the reclusive regime, the United Nations passed the toughest round of sanctions yet on the North Korean state. Luxury goods were included among the many sanctioned items, but the definition of such goods was left up to each UN member state.

Switzerland currently forbids exports of luxury goods such as caviar, cigars, silver cutlery, handmade carpets, purebred horses, truffles, billiard equipment and speciality bakery items including croissants – a list containing 23 items in total. Number 23 on that list is “infrastructure installations and equipment for luxury sport facilities,” added July 3.

The UN Security Council also forbids exports of jewellery, yachts and luxury cars.

It is estimated that some 16 million of North Korea’s 25 million people suffer from starvation and food insecurity, with widespread food shortages and famine reported.

Also in March, the UN established a commission of inquiry to obtain a clearer picture of human rights violations at the hand of the North Korean regime, which it is believed include extensive use of political prison camps, poor prison conditions and prisoners being subjected to forced labour, torture and corporal punishment.


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The cabinet agrees. According to Avet, it declared it “not opportune” to have Swiss firms involved in such projects, especially amid the wide range of UN sanctions on North Korea and the country’s human rights record (see infobox).

Topic of discussion

Former parliamentarian Peter Vollmer, who travelled to North Korea as part of a Swiss delegation last autumn, sees the ski resort issue as a “borderline case” between the regime’s interests and the broadening of sports and tourism to a larger population.

“Such a sports complex certainly isn’t just for a few members of the elite, it’s surely intended for a larger segment of the population,” Vollmer told

“We don’t know how this will be used, whether it will be used by schools or by organised vacation camps. That’s how [winter sport] used to be in Switzerland – quite elite before it became more widespread through the schools and organised groups.”

Vollmer added that the planned winter sports complex was already a topic of discussion when he and ­­­a group of Swiss politicians travelled to North Korea last year.

“We heard about it. It was brought up by the North Korean side that they had problems with this sport area and that they were disappointed it wasn’t coming together,” he said.

Expanding tourism

For Roland Bartholet’s firm Bartholet Maschinenbau, based in canton St Gallen, working with controversial governments is nothing new: they take on contracts from regimes around the world, including Iran and Iraq.

To Bartholet, North Korea represented new territory in a part of the world the firm was already quite active in – it currently works extensively in China and hopes to become involved in furnishing equipment for South Korea’s Winter Games in 2018.

“We saw [North Korea] as a country of the future, with their desire to introduce sport and tourism as signs that they are opening a bit and want to show themselves from another perspective,” Bartholet told

“This was a pure business deal with a Chinese firm that said one of three firms worldwide would get the contract to build this system [in North Korea]. Now it just won’t be the Swiss.”

Like Bartholet, Vollmer sees the North Koreans’ right to develop a tourism industry as “legitimate”.

“The North Koreans are looking for tourism possibilities, and that could become an economic factor for the country. Tourism in that mountain range existed for a while but then fell apart, and now Chinese tourists come sometimes, so tourism has to be on the North Koreans’ radar. So it’s legitimate to want to build something up in that area.”

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