the Russians were allowed to get behind the border

<span>Kim visited the ‘five-star’ ski resort in the Masik Pass region, which features a hotel, ski service and rental shops, when it opened in 2013.  This undated photo was released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency.<span> /span><span>Photo: KCNA/Reuters</span>” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ 6b0768eded3″ data src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/ b0768eded3″/></div>
<p><figcaption class=Kim visited the ‘five-star’ ski resort in the Masik Pass region, which features a hotel, ski service and rental shops, when it opened in 2013. This undated photo was released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency.Photo: KCNA/Reuters

As she soared over pristine, pristine mountain runs, Olga Shpalok said she “received 100% satisfaction.”

After a full day of skiing, the Russian designer from Vladivostok concluded with a visit to her hotel’s well-equipped spa and sauna.

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

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

In early February, she traveled to the country with a hundred other Russian tourists for a four-day ski trip that the Russian embassy described as “Pyongyang opens its doors.”

So far this year, more than 200 Russian tourists have visited North Korea, spread over three trips in February and March. Their interviews and stories provide a rare insight into life under Kim Jong-un’s regime.

Closely watched by government “minders,” who limited what they could see and where they could go, the Russian tourists described spending time in otherwise empty luxury ski resorts. Some said they felt deeply uncomfortable about the poverty and total control they witnessed.

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

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

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

The Russian tourist groups visiting North Korea illustrate another way Moscow can help Pyongyang. Before the pandemic, an estimated 5,000 Westerners visited North Korea every year as part of expensive tours, but since Covid-19 the borders have been closed.

Faced with increasingly stringent international sanctions and the reported food crisis due to pandemic isolation, any hard currency will be a welcome addition to Pyongyang’s cash-strapped coffers.

“It is a telling reflection of the regime’s priorities that North Korea has chosen to grant access to Russian tourists, yet continues to reject calls from humanitarian organizations advocating for access,” said Hanna Song of the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights in Seoul.

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

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

The tours start with a two-hour flight from the far-eastern Russian city of Vladivostok to Pyongyang, operated by the North Korean state airline Air Koryo. It consists of an aging fleet of mainly Russian Tu-154 aircraft.

“When I boarded the plane, I wondered if we would even make it,” recalls Alexandra Daniyelko, a PR manager from Moscow who took part in one of the tours.

Upon arrival in Pyongyang, the Russian tourists visited the central Kim Il-sung Square, bowed to the bronze statues of 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 performed patriotic music and dance performances.

These carefully staged shows are traditionally steeped in government propaganda aimed at instilling in North Koreans national pride and loyalty to Kim’s family, which has ruled ruthlessly since coming to power in 1948.

“I cried for the purity, kindness and talent of these children,” said Daniyelko, describing the performance.

Another Russian tourist described the children as “completely disciplined and obedient,” adding that local babysitters confiscated the chocolates some Russian tourists had brought for the children.

But for many traveling, the holiday didn’t really begin until the second day, when tourists boarded a domestic flight to the coastal town of Wonsan, near the Masikryong ski resort.

The resort is one of several large-scale construction projects commissioned by Kim in recent years, believed to have cost £24 million. Guests are taken to the slopes in old Austrian-made gondolas, imported from China.

Prior to the resort’s opening in 2014, a skiless Kim was photographed smoking a cigarette in a lift chair.

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

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

“There were no people on the main slopes, which was just perfect,” says Yekaterina Kolomeetsa, a travel blogger from Vladivostok.

Empty ski slopes are not surprising when you consider that there are reportedly only 5,500 skiers out of a population of 24 million.

Despite North Korea’s efforts to paint a very composite picture of their country, some Russian tourists said they left upset.

“You felt the hopelessness and constant control in the country throughout the entire journey,” Shpalok said. While riding on a bus with other tourists in Pyongyang, she said she rarely saw cars or people on the road. “We asked our guides where everyone was. They told us that people were enjoying their work.”

The tourists were strictly forbidden to film ordinary houses or people and were not allowed to go out alone. The few people Shpalok saw looked “small and hungry,” while some children were “barely clothed” despite the cold.

Yulia Mishkova, another Russian tourist, said the trip was worth it for those “looking for a dose of absurdity.”

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

Yet both countries seem to have big plans for the future. According to a report from the government of Primorsky Krai, a region in Russia’s far east on the border of the two countries, North Korea is also building a new major ski resort for Russian tourists, which will include 17 hotels, 37 guesthouses and 29 shops .

Tatyana Markova, a representative of the travel agency Vostok Intur, said two walking tours to North Korea have already been planned for the Russian holidays in May.

“This is just the beginning,” said a recent ad promoting trips to North Korea in May. “Make sure you reserve your spot quickly!”

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