South, North skiers train together at MasikryongSouth and North Korean skiers conducted joint training at a ski resort in the North on Thursday, expressing hope that both sides can keep building strong friendship in the sports field.
South Korea’s 45-member delegation, including two dozen non-Olympics skiers, came to North Korea on Wednesday for a two-day joint exercise at the Masikryong Ski Resort, located on the outskirts of the eastern city of Wonsan.
After enjoying free skiing a day earlier, a total of 24 skiers from both sides held alpine skiing friendly matches for about three hours in the morning, coming down the slope at the resort.
The ski exercise was part of joint events agreed upon at the two Koreas’ talks last month, as the North will take part in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un extended a rare rapprochement to Seoul in his New Year’s message after a year of tensions sparked by the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
The ski training sparked a heated debate in the South as public sentiment remained negative toward the use of a North Korean facility highly promoted by the regime.
The Masikryong resort opened in December 2013 as one of Kim Jong-un’s pet projects, amid reports that the leader, known to have been educated in Switzerland, loves skiing.
The resort was reportedly built with imports of luxury items banned under UN sanctions resolutions, including European-made snowmobiles and other high-end goods.
Some foreign media have said the resort is the outcome of labor exploitation.
But to the Koreas’ skiers, politics seemed to pale in comparison to sports. They appeared to be united as “compatriots” at least in the sports field, enjoying a rare chance to jointly conduct the ski training.
“I am so happy that as one brethren, [the Koreas’] skiers have joined the combined exercise,” Ahn Dong-myoung, a North Korean alpine skier, was quoted as saying by the pool report.
“I hope that friendship [between the two sides] could strengthen through [continued exchanges] with South Korean skiers,” he added.
Park Je-yoon, a 25-year-old South Korean alpine skier, said that it was good that he joined rare inter-Korean sports exchanges.
“As the two Koreas are divided, I wondered what it would be like in meeting with North Koreans. But I realized that they are ordinary skiers like my peers,” he added.
Kim Chong-song, a North Korean skier, expressed hope that the Koreas could win the world championship after the divided Koreans are unified some day.
Despite a conciliatory mood during the training, the Masikryong resort did not hide its propaganda purposes.
A big electronic screen installed near a stop for gondolas which lead skiers to the top of the slope showed performances of the Moranbong Band, a popular all-female North Korean band, and some propaganda footage praising the North’s leader.
“The North has probably wanted to promote the Masikryong resort for propaganda purposes by accepting South Korean skiers,” said Kim Young-hee, an expert on the North Korean economy at Korea Development Bank.
“The move also seems to reflect the North’s wish to attract South Korean tourists to the ski resort someday when inter-Korean tour programs reopen,” she added.
South Korea used a chartered plane to fly its skiers to the North, raising concerns that the move would violate U.S. sanctions.
Seoul was not able to confirm its plan to transport its delegation by air until the last minute Wednesday due to its consultation with its main ally, Washington, to win an exemption from U.S. sanctions.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced a set of sanctions in September that include banning vessels and aircraft that have visited North Korea from visiting the United States within 180 days.
The United States confirmed the exemption only an hour before the flight’s takeoff.