the Russians allowed behind the border

Thug <span>Kim visited the ‘five-star’ ski resort in the Masik Pass region, which has a hotel, ski service and rental shops, when it opened in 2013. The North Korean Central News Agency released this undated photo.< /span>Photo: KCNA/Reuters</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/″ data- src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Kim visited the ‘five-star’ ski resort in the Masik Pass region, which has a hotel, ski service and rental shops, when it opened in 2013. This undated photo was released by the Korean Central News Agency.Photo: KCNA/Reuters

As she glided down pristine untouched mountain runs, Olga Shpalok said she was “getting 100% satisfaction”.

After a full day of skiing, the Russian designer from Vladivostok ended up visiting her hotel’s well-equipped spa and sauna.

“They said it was very difficult to get into the country. But fate smiled on us,” she said.

Shpalok was part of the first group of foreign tourists to visit North Korea since it closed its borders at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

In early February, she traveled to the country with 100 other Russian tourists on a four-day ski trip billed by the Russian embassy as “Pyongyang will open its doors”.

More than 200 Russian tourists have visited North Korea so far this year on three trips in February and March. Their interviews and accounts provide a rare insight into life under Kim Jong-un’s regime.

Closely watched by government “guards”, who restricted what they could see and where they could go, Russian tourists described spending time in luxurious ski resorts that were otherwise empty. Some of them said they felt very uneasy about the poverty and total control they saw.

Russia’s access to a pariah state is no coincidence. It comes at a time when the two countries are moving closer at an unprecedented pace, prompted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

North Korea has emerged as Russia’s largest arms supplier, shipping artillery shells, missiles and other equipment for Moscow’s ongoing war. In exchange, Russia appears to be sending North Korea food, raw materials and parts used in the manufacture of weapons, avoiding international sanctions imposed on the country.

Related: Pro snowboarders head to North Korea to test out Kim Jong-un’s new ski resort

The Russian tourist groups visiting North Korea show another way Moscow can help Pyongyang. Before the pandemic, about 5,000 westerners visited North Korea each year as part of expensive tours but since Covid-19 the borders have been sealed.

With international sanctions tightening and a reported food crisis fueled by the isolation of the pandemic, any hard currency is welcomed by cash-strapped Pyongyang cooks.

“It is a significant reflection of the regime’s priorities that North Korea has chosen to allow access to Russian tourists, while still refusing appeals from humanitarian organizations pleading for entry,” said Hanna Song, of the North Korea Database Center for Human Rights in Seoul.

The group tours, first announced by several Russian tourism agencies in January, cost $750 (£600). This includes round-trip airfare to Pyongyang, North Korea’s only international airport in the capital. The domestic flight to the ski resort on the east coast of North Korea, the hotel stay, and meals were also covered.

The $40 daily ski pass, souvenirs and other expenses, including alcohol and cigarettes, were paid in cash.

The tours begin with a two-hour flight from the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok to Pyongyang, operated by North Korean state-owned Air Koryo airlines. It consists of an aging fleet of mostly Russian-made Tu-154 aircraft.

“When I boarded the plane, I wondered if we were going to make it at all,” recalled Alexandra Daniyelko, a PR manager from Moscow who went on one of the trips.

Upon arrival in Pyongyang, the Russian tourists visited the central Kim Il-sung Square, bowed to the bronze statues of the late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on Mansu Hill and attended a youth music performance at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, where members of communist youth groups staged patriotic music and dance.

These carefully staged spectacles are traditionally steeped in government propaganda aimed at instilling North Koreans with national pride and loyalty to the Kim family, which has ruled ruthlessly since it came to power in 1948.

“I was struck by the purity, kindness and talent of these children,” said Daniyelko, describing the performance.

Another Russian tourist described the children as “very disciplined and obedient”, adding that the local guards confiscated the chocolates given to the children by some Russian tourists.

But for many on the trip, the holiday truly began on the second day, when the tourists boarded an internal flight to the coastal town of Wonsan near the Masikryong ski resort.

The resort is one of the large-scale construction projects commissioned by Kim in recent years, thought to have cost £24m. Guests are whisked to the slopes on vintage Austrian-made gondolas imported from China.

Before the resort opened in 2014, Kim was photographed without skis in a chairlift smoking a cigarette.

The Russian tourists were told they would stay at a “five-star Swiss Alps-style resort” built on the orders of Kim, who was himself educated in Switzerland.

Images published on Instagram showed polished hotel rooms, a modern swimming pool, a sauna, a massage area and a hair salon.

“There was nobody on the main slopes, which was perfect,” said Yekaterina Kolomeetsa, a travel blogger from Vladivostok.

An empty ski piste is not surprising considering there are only 5,500 skiers in a population of 24 million.

Despite North Korea’s best efforts to present a very conservative image of their country, some Russian tourists said they were left upset.

“You could feel hopelessness and constant control in the country during the entire trip,” Shpalok said. In Pyongyang, riding a bus with other tourists, she said she rarely saw cars or people on the roads. “We asked our guide where everyone was. They told us that people were happy at work.”

The tourists were completely forbidden to film ordinary houses or people and could not go on walks alone. The few people who saw Shpalok looked “short and hungry”, and some children were “barely dressed” despite the cold.

Yulia Mishkova, another Russian tourist, said the trip was worthwhile for those “looking for a dose of absence”.

“I felt sorry for the frightened North Koreans,” Mishkova said, adding that it was hard to ignore the fact that her daily ski pass costs more than the average monthly salary. “I will not go again for moral and ethical reasons.”

Still, both countries seem to have big plans for the future. According to a report from the government of Primorsky Krai, a region in eastern Russia on the border of the two countries, North Korea is building another ski resort for Russian tourists that will include 17 hotels, 37 guesthouses and 29 shops.

Tatyana Markova, a representative of the travel agency Vostok Intur, said that two hiking trips to North Korea are already planned for the Russian holidays in May.

“This is just the beginning,” said a recent ad promoting May’s trips to North Korea. “Be sure to book your place quickly!”

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