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Number 1 Shimbun

Apocalypse (Not) Now - An Italian Journalist Hits the Slopes to Take North Korea’s Pulse

No1-2018-04 04

Apocalypse (Not) Now - An Italian Journalist Hits the Slopes to Take North Korea’s Pulse

by Pio d’Emilia

For a journalist, traveling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is always a privilege. No matter how strictly you are “minded,” monitored, accompanied, limited in your professional and even personal movements, every time you go there you are able to discover new things, deepening your understanding of the most feared and isolated country of the world, but also the least known.

Despite the harsh – and pretty much useless – international sanctions imposed on the DPRK, and despite Washington’s recent move to forbid such trips by Americans who lack special permission, I strongly believe that foreigners, including Americans and Japanese, should visit the country. Going there as an ordinary tour-group member has its merits, even for a journalist. There are plenty of opportunities now to do so, through a few Chinese travel agents or by dealing directly with the Korea International Travel Company.

DPRK tours these days are not all focused on Pyongyang, the capital. You may, for example, travel to the east coast port of Wonsan and head out from there for more adventurous itineraries such as skiing at Masikryong and surfing at the brand new Kalma Sea Beach Resort, which is already completed but due to open officially only next summer. You can also enter and exit the country by rail, through the Chinese border city of Dandong.

Don’t worry about safety. The flip side of the DPRK’s reputation as the consummate police state is that it’s one of the safest countries in the world – assuming you behave yourself, don’t act silly and don’t provoke local authorities. Life for tourists has become easier recently, with many new restaurants including the “fusion” sushi and ramen shop opened by the late ruler Kim Jong-il’s Japanese personal chef who, using his pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, is amazingly back in Pyongyang. We even found a more than decent pizzeria.

The government has also relaxed the rules for electronic communications. You can now easily access the Internet from most hotels (although it’s a bit expensive) and even bring in your mobile. With a local SIM card, you can make international calls and surf the net. If you have a Chinese SIM card, you can roam without having to buy a local SIM.

Along with my sons, I’m fond of skiing and always looking for new locations. Two years ago I discovered Masikryong (see box) one of the most secluded, albeit perfectly organized, ski resorts in the world. I went there with sons Alex, 28, who is a ski instructor, paraglider and high-line addict, and Miki, 17, who’s still in high-school.

We made that trip with the help of Michael Spavor, a young and bright Canadian businessman who runs a cultural-exchange travel company from nearby China. He speaks Korean and has strong connections with the inner circle including Kim Jong-un himself. Spavor was part of the team that took retired basketball champion Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang and to Masik Ryong.

Even though the resort was almost empty when we arrived the first time, we enjoyed an unforgettable ski experience. Compared with the long lines and overcrowded runs in Japan and Europe, skiing there was like a dream. And we pledged to return. So we did. Learning that the DPRK would officially join the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, we decided to schedule our second visit to overlap. It was a good call. Witnessing from inside the DPRK the new mood and atmosphere ignited by the North’s decision to join the Games – sudden, but widely expected by those who follow Korean things – was something I didn’t want to miss. In the event, the mood was indeed different.


One night we were allowed to walk – a privilege rarely granted to foreign guests, for various reasons – from our hotel, the Koryo, to Kim Il-sung Square, where thousands of citizens had gathered for an unexpected “street party,” amazing fireworks and even some street food stalls. The mood was very relaxed, to the point that our “guides,” realizing it would have been almost possible to keep a constant eye on us, just told us to “behave” and to please gather at the center of the square by one in the morning.

We all complied – except for Rick, a young American researcher, who disappeared, our guides were desperate, and we all helped them look for him. No way. We had to wait the next morning to learn that he’d been found totally drunk, lying on a road, and taken to the International Hospital in the Diplomatic Compound. He had to pay, quite legitimately I believe, over three hundred US dollars before being dismissed. Needless to say, we were all pissed off at him. His irresponsible behaviour had endangered not only the rest of the group but also our two nice and dedicated guides.

Even this episode did not ruin the general, festive mood. Even soldiers – whom you are usually not allowed to talk to, let alone photograph – were quite relaxed and open to us.
We even played some football with a group of them. All the people we were able to talk to – and we were quite free to do so, even directly, thanks to Spavor's fluency in Korean – showed evidently genuine and positive feelings of hope.

Something similar happens in the South too, where I went a few days after and where none of the apocalyptic reports you usually read and watch on international media, especially in the US and Japan, seemed to connect with reality. I never found a single South Korean seriously concerned about being attacked by the North. Actually, they mostly take DPRK threats with much irony, making all kind of jokes.

The fact is that both countries’ people know pretty well that they are not the main reciprocal targets. The DPRK will never, I am quite convinced about this, attack the south. Never. Despite more than seventy years of unjust, shameful and humiliating separation, Korea is still one nation, one people. And all those who imagine pictures of Seoul burning after a retaliation attack – or even a preemptive one – should be left alone with their nightmares. Those nightmares should not become ours. Certainly they are not shared by the Koreans, North or South.

My feeling as a humble Korea watcher is that ever since the DPRK achieved some kind of nuclear capability (or at least convinced much of the rest of the world that it had done so), peace is actually much closer than war. And given the unpredictability of President Donald Trump and his need to deliver something more meaningful than funny and silly tweets, I am not ruling out, if he manages to avoid impeachment, that he will be the one to actually meet “Rocket Man,” or, as the young Kim is usually referred to in his country, the “Brilliant Comrade.” And then – who knows? – maybe Trump will sign a peace treaty. This could get him – and Kim, contrary to year 2000, when only South Korean president Kim Dae – jung got it, quite unfairly to the DPRK leader Kim Jong-il – the Nobel Peace Prize, conceivably far more deserved than the Nobel given to Barack Obama in 2009, his first year in office.

This is not all going to happen right away, of course. Kim and Trump have personally insulted each other, to the point that we will need some time before a direct summit can yield positive results. But wise people are already at work, and if American warmongers and their Japanese allies will take a rest and let people of good will do their jobs, chances for new, constructive, direct talks are increasing day by day. As I write this story, preparations are under way for a pan-Korean summit by the end of April.

The patient, brave and coherent approach given to the DPRK issue by recently elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in (the “political” Gold Medalist of the 2018 Winter Olympics) is beginning to bear fruit – much more so than international sanctions and undeliverable threats did. Moon, much like his predecessor Kim Dae-jung twenty years ago, is emerging as the real broker of the future developments on the peninsula. Moon’s task is not an easy one, given the various interests, pressures and demands he meets while dealing with skeptics in South Korea as well as in the United States, China and Japan.


The DPRK is not only about nuclear things. It is a small, proud country that has managed, whether we like it or not, to survive under the Kim regime until today. Accomplishing that despite all the sanctions shows an amazingly, although not easily detectable, lively and fast-growing economy. The old, obsolete and immobile state system is little by little changing, giving way to something very close to the embryo of a market economy, even if still under big state conglomerates. Just a few examples:

*Air Koryo, the state-owned airline, has been diversifying its business. It now owns a constantly growing taxi company, runs gasoline stations and even produces locally soft drinks and fast food, which are sold in directly managed small supermarkets.

*Gold Cup, a state-owned corporation established in 2009 to deal with the fish industry, today has diversified its business to design and produce interior furniture and manage small coffee shops and street stalls, which are actually operated by private citizens. A similar case is Naegohyang, the old monopoly company dealing with tobacco and cigarettes, which now produces comics, playing cards, sports items and garments.

*Even Masikryong, the company that manages the secluded, posh ski resort has diversified. It now runs a bus company and produces and distributes a very popular, eponymous brand of mineral water.

These are all what we might call side businesses of the traditional big state-owned corporations, whose managers – far from being idiots – have found ways to establish gray relationships with the outside world in a time of extremely harsh international sanctions. Something not too different happened in Myanmar, when that country was similarly hit by international sanctions.

When sanctions are lifted – even partially, as China and Russia will probably propose to the United Nations Security Council after the current developments – the DPRK market will be definitely different and probably ready to welcome foreign investments. Wouldn't it be worthwhile for Japan, the United States and Europe to jump on, instead of leaving all the cake to China?


Masikryong, where “Horses Must Rest”

North Korea’s first ski resort opened its doors in 2015. It's is a bit far from Pyongyang, about four hours drive on a very bumpy highway, but recently it became possible to reach it using the new Kalma Airport, with a flight of less than an hour. Masikryong – which means “place where horses rest,” – is one of the pet projects of Kim Jong-un, who studied in Switzerland and is fond of skiiing. The whole resort was completed from scratch in under 10 months, and has since become proof that despite sanctions and isolation, the DPRK is capable of building – and managing – international-standard infrastructure. Originally, the DPRK had hopes to somehow co-host the Pyeongchang Olympics, and Masikryong could certainly be a candidate to host at least an Alpine Sky event. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and now Masikryong, figuratively a jewel in the desert, must wait to another chance to fulfill its initial projections: five thousand people a day during the peak winter season.

Many people objected that Masikryong was built by violating the international sanctions including an embargo on luxury goods; many products and structures came from European countries like Austria, Germany and Italy (including the main gondola). But apparently there was a loophole: Goods were offered through their European makers’ Chinese subsidiaries. While Europe considers ski items “luxury goods,” China does not. Beijing considers them items to enhance the cultural, social and sport levels of the people.

Designed by the Pyongyang Architectural Institute, the 120-room Masikryong Hotel rises in twin pyramidal towers with the taller of the two having nine floors. The interior of the hotel lobby is posh. People at the reception desk speak decent English and are very nice and helpful. When we got our keys, we rushed to our rooms and we were surprised to find that they looked awesome. They had been designed to look and feel as if we were staying in a wooden Swiss chalet, but at the same time with all contemporary comforts. It took a few hours to set up the Internet (US$8 for five minutes), but eventually it worked, and at a decent speed.

The only odd thing about the hotel was that the coffee and tea box that was beside the kettle in the room was empty. But despair didn't last long; in the luxurious lobby, where you could enjoy karaoke and even play billiards, there was a splendid, brand new, top-of-the-line Italian espresso machine, with a good choice between Japanese Key Coffee and Italian Lavazza. Guess which one we choose to enjoy. After a full day of skiing in extremely cold weather but with beautiful snow conditions, we enjoyed a more than decent dinner. They served us a mix of western and Asian food mostly prepared with locally produced items.


Tokyo-Pyongyang Peace Road

Now that the United States seems to have chosen to reengage Pyongyang, Japan also should give peace a chance. Peace on the Korean Peninsula is certainly important for the US and the whole world, but after the Korean people the number one beneficiary most certainly would be Japan – both its people and its economy.

But how could this be done? Well, by starting from the Pyongyang Declaration, which was signed in 2002 by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Chairman Kim Jong-il but de facto soon violated by Japan under the ill-fated advice of then deputy chief cabinet secretary Shinzo Abe, the current prime minister.

The declaration could be resuscitated. Probably Abe is not the right person to do it and he has, anyway, other ideas on how to tackle the DPRK issue, but his successor could deal with it. In the meantime, Koizumi, who has recently shown a lot of energy and desire to make news, could start an informal re-approach to Pyongyang.

Following the Obama Cuban model, Japan and North Korea could issue a joint statement reaffirming the Pyongyang Declaration and establishing diplomatic relations, initially at least leaving the present situation basically intact.

This means that North Korea would be allowed to continue to possess – or at least pretend to possess – nuclear weapons and to maintain its basic position on the abduction issue, and that Japan would maintain its own sanctions toward North Korea and keep all existing US bases in mainland Japan and Okinawa. But at the same time, the two countries would open embassies in Pyongyang and Tokyo and immediately start negotiations. The negotiations would proceed at three tables. As recently suggested in one of his essays by Haruki Wada, a Tokyo University professor emeritus and Korea expert.

Table one would be for negotiations concerning economic cooperation. This is a step that was promised in the Pyongyang Declaration as a sign of apology for the “tremendous damage and suffering” caused by Japan “to the people of Korea through its colonial rule.” A ten-year program of economic cooperation should be drawn up, including agreement on implementation of each year’s project.

Table two would be for negotiations concerning North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program. Japan should convey to North Korea its grave concern about underground nuclear explosions and ask it to stop. Japan also should ask North Korea to inform when and where it planned to test-fire missiles. Further, Japan should ask North Korea not to attack US military bases in Japan, a much more likely option than an attack to the south. But then North Korea might say that the US forces might attack North Korea from the bases in Japan. North Korea might demand Japan get an official statement from the US government that US forces would never attack North Korea from their bases in Japan. Such negotiations would be very meaningful and important, but, I imagine, difficult.

Table three (and not table one!) would be for negotiations concerning the abduction issue. These negotiations could start from the point at which North Korea said eight abducted victims, including Yokota Megumi, had all died. Japan could point out that North Korean explanations of the circumstances of their death is not yet persuasive and could demand further explanation and joint on-the-spot investigations. North Korea may be still concealing some living abducted Japanese persons, for example Yaeko Taguchi, teacher of a spy who helped blow up a KAL plane in 1987, Kim Hyon-hui. To save such a victim, it is necessary to continue negotiation as long as possible, waiting for the North Korean position to change.


Pio d’Emilia came to Tokyo in 1979 as a lawyer. After earning a master’s in international criminal procedure from Keio University, he switched to journalism and started freelancing. From 1985 he has been reporting for, among others, the newspaper Il Manfesto and the newsmagazine L’Espresso. Since 2006 he has been East Asia correspondent for Italy’s all-news TV channel SKY TG24.

Published in: April 2018

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