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March 30, 2017

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North Korean skiers set sights on future competitive glory

MASIK PASS, North Korea--For North Korean skiers, Sochi was a distant dream. The country didn't send a single athlete to the Winter Olympics and has never won a downhill medal. But as the rest of the world watches this year's Olympic pageant wrap up in Russia, North Koreans are flocking to the slopes of a lavish new ski resort all their own — and many have a gold medal in mind four years from now, when the winter games will be held in South Korea.

Of course, that's a tall order.

Even by official estimates, only about 0.02 percent of North Korea's 24 million people have ever strapped on ski boots. But with the blessing of leader Kim Jong Un, who has made building recreational and sporting facilities a priority, in part to boost tourism as a source of hard cash for the economically strapped nation, skiing is now almost a national duty for those who have the time, money or opportunity to hit the slopes.

North Korea's newest symbol of national pride and "single-minded unity," the ski resort at Masik Pass, nestled deep in the country's eastern mountains, is an impressive site. It has 10 ski runs, from beginning to advanced, a well-equipped rental shop, and a 250-room, eight-story hotel for foreigners alongside a 150-room hotel for Koreans. There's a deluxe swimming pool, lifts up to the top of scenic Taehwa Peak, an underground parking area and a helipad for VIPs or medical emergencies.

With little more knowledge of skiing than what they have seen on TV, most of the skiers at Masik — predominantly North Koreans visiting in large groups affiliated with their workplaces, neighborhoods or other official affiliations — brave the runs without any lessons. Wipeouts are frequent. There are no reliable figures on the number of serious injuries that have occurred since the resort opened earlier this winter, nor on the total number of skiers who have visited.

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