The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

North Korean Resort Gives Foreign Tourists Window on Hermit Kingdom

Posted by vmsalama on August 9, 2007

Click here for link to World Politics Review link
Vivian Salama | 08 Aug 2007

To see photos from my trip to North Korea/DMZ, click here

KUMGANG MOUNTAIN, North Korea — Bags packed, hiking boots tightly laced, visors on, cameras in hand, a few dozen South Korean tourists make their way to an unlikely vacation destination. Their journey, a mere four hours from Seoul, will take them through barbed wire checkpoints, and at their destination they will be greeted by machine-gun-toting soldiers. 

 In cooperation with the government of South Korea and the Hyundai Asan Corp., North Korea is dabbling in the art of making money through tourism, offering a peephole into the Hermit Kingdom for visitors from all over the world.

Kumgang Mountain first opened in 1998 after Hyundai Asan paid some $1 billion to the North Korean government for exclusive rights to run a vacation destination. The company spent an additional $400 million building the resort. The 922-square mile complex, located just over the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula’s eastern seaboard, sees around 100,000 tourists per year, most of them South Koreans.

North and South Korea technically remain at war, as a peace agreement was never signed following the 1953 ceasefire that ended the Korean conflict. After more than 50 years of solitude, however, North Korea’s economy is in shambles and the South Korean government, under its “Sunshine Policy,” is more open than ever to economic cooperation with its northern neighbor. Kumgang employs 779 North Koreans and 250 South Koreans, according to Hyundai Asan’s Ha-Jung Byun.

An additional 450 employees are Korean residents of China whose families fled the Peninsula during the Korean War and now have the opportunity to return to Kumgang on one-year work contracts.Similarly, the nearby Kaesong Industrial Region, which now hosts 23 South Korean companies and is expected eventually to host dozens more, has employed more than 100,000 Koreans from both sides of the border since it opened in June 2003. Again, North Koreans make up the bulk of Kaesong employees, each of whom earns less than $70 a month. Kumgang and Kaesong are built on the old invasion route used by North Korean armies to attack South Korea during the war.

“North Korea hesitated opening both places because it is a strategic military path for them,” says Yong In Yi, a reporter with the Seoul-based Hankyoreh news service. Kim Jong-il worked hard to convince powerful members of the North Korean military that the projects should be built, he says.

Signs of the dismal state of the nation’s economy are evident even despite the restricted access granted to tourists. Emaciated cows can be seen making their way across barren fields, and villages — which tourists have no opportunity to see up close — are visibly derelict even from afar.When signs of renewal and prosperity are seen, it is difficult to tell whether they have been staged for the benefit of foreign tourists.

The Holy Valley Temple, a brightly painted wooden complex that suffered extensive damage in a bombing by U.S. planes during the Korean War, has been rebuilt. In a country where organized religion is prohibited and leaders of the Kim dynasty are deified, one elderly monk visiting from South Korea speculates that the reconstruction is a facade meant to give tourists the impression that religion is openly practiced in the North.

The effects of decades of North Korean propaganda are also evident in conversations with locals. Most of the North Koreans encountered by the tourist group say an attack by the United States is imminent and believe nuclear weapons are their country’s best defense.The ride to Kumgang, 20 minutes from the border, is an eye-opening experience. Holes have been cut into the mountains to serve as concrete garages for tanks. One building is decorated with a huge portrait of Kim Il-Sung. Soldiers are everywhere. As the tourist bus passes, the troops follow the vehicle until it is out of sight. Members of the group are told not to photograph them. The consequences of doing so would be “very bad,” according to the guide.

Kumgang Mountain resort is surrounded by a green fence marking the border between the real North Korea outside and the Potemkin village inside. The North Korean employees wear pins depicting the late “Eternal Leader” Kim Il-Sung, and they speak carefully, wary of probing questions. The only currency accepted is the U.S. dollar and no opportunity to separate tourists from their cash is missed — even the portable toilets cost $2 to use.Among the group are a handful of South Korean and foreign journalists who have been invited along by the South Korean Press Foundation. During a hiking outing, the reporters shower locals with questions about everything from their family lives to their impressions of America. Most of the North Koreans seem to assume their questioners are curious only because they are journalists, not because North Korea remains an enigma to the outside world.

Not everyone warms to the group. During lunch, a waitress is outraged that she is photographed without permission, but grows friendly when the photographers agree to delete the photos. Her father is a doctor in Pyongyang and waiting tables is a top-notch job in North Korea, she says, requiring a college degree.

Later, a group of North Koreans is eager to discuss politics. Pyongyang native Lee Il-Joon says he is happy that the Democrats are now the majority in the U.S. Congress and he wants to know if Condoleezza Rice is planning a visit to Pyongyang given the recent progress in the Six Party nuclear talks. He expresses dismay about the situation in Iraq and is ambivalent about the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. “We were sad to hear about people dying on September 11, but I think the U.S. deserved this attack because of all of its wrongdoings in the world,” he says.

Similar sentiments are expressed by other North Koreans, many of whom say the United States has not yet attacked North Korea only because it fears Kim Jong-il. “The chairman protects us from all the evil in the world,” Joon says.


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