Mansik: the most “exotic” ski resort in the world
Today we awaken to the roaring sound of the ocean, after spending the night at some quaint sea-side cottages. The East sea here is pristine, and it leaves me wondering whether Korean citizens ever get to experience the vast expanses and freedom this little strip of sand harbors.
Last night’s bonfire still seems like a dream, and this morning, a nervous stroll by the beach revealed just a bit of leftover ashes, buried in the sand.
Today ended up being another day of strange juxtapositions. For example, I had my first ski run of the “season” here at the DPRK. For $29, we were given rental ski outfits (which were hilarious and unnecessary, given how hot the day was), helmets, skis, goggles and lift tickets. I was incredibly nervous, knowing that my options for medical assistance would be few and far between, but after a practice run, it all just felt so normal. Even stranger was when we met a group of DPRK students who are studying at the Kim Il Sung University. Between my broken Korean and their limited English, we struck up a conversation and took two rides up together.
Sitting in that chair lift with a fellow skier who happens to be North Korean was surreal. He asked me how old I was, where I’m from and what instruments I play. I asked him how he learned English (at school, from a young age), how he learned to ski (self-taught…which I really didn’t buy given how good he and his friends were), and where he lives (in Pyongyang). He was so carefree. Was this really the Orwellian socialist state I thought I came to visit? Or was this really a peek into the lives of the very, very elite, who live like wealthy Americans while 99% of the country remains in an 1980’s agrarian society?
What really made my day was when, at one point, he turned to me and said that tonight, when he is home, he’ll study more English. Well if that’s not first-hand impact…
Back on the bus, we did not give our tour guides and easy time. We asked them questions about everything from the Juche Idea to the Korean Military to politics and voting to the missile program and US-Korean relations.
These are the answers our guides gave us, which you can interpret as you’d like.
What is the Juche Idea?
“Idea founded by Kim Il Sung, stressing the importance of self-reliance as the only path to independence.”
If self-reliance is so critical, how do you reconcile importing in technology?
“When technology, or for that matter, other forms of “help” and “knowledge”, it gets “converted” to what is useful for the DPRK. By taking a specific North Korean adaptation to the imported good, they are able to self-actualize. Learning from the outside is not inconsistent with self-reliance.”
Can you give us some examples of “living life for tomorrow, not for today”? (This question came up when our guide mentioned the current national motto or sentiment)
“During the Arduous March, there were many starving citizens. While some abandoned their factories and machinery, there was a story of one couple who diligently went to their factory every day to maintain and keep clean their machines, even though the factory was not running. Through this diligence, they were able to demonstrate their commitment to their nation and to their jobs and roles. They had one child. One day, they finally died in front of their machines out of hunger. Kim Il Sung was so touched by this story that he decided to pay for this orphan’s education.”
What is the Songun idea?
“Developed by Kim Jong Il, Songun is the actualization of the Juche Idea through military strength. In order to be self reliant, Korea has to develop a strong military presence so that it can protect its sovereignty from foreign powers.”
How do you balance the decision to invest money in the people versus the military?
“It is a hard choice, but again, fits with the spirit of ‘live for tomorrow, not for today’. By being strong and independent, Korea has a chance for a better future.”
“That is also why we have world-class nuclear weapons. This is how we can strengthen our military, but only for defense purposes. We are a peaceful nation, but do not want to be attacked again. We will have this program so long as the US does. The US cannot ask of other countries what it is unwilling to do itself.”
This post was written in March 2014 as part of a week-long trip to the DPRK, arranged by the North Korean study group at the Harvard Kennedy School.