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Hyundai Asan’s buses on Kumgang could have been commandeered

Oct 31,2019
Left: A satellite image, taken on March 23, 2011 of the tourist zone in Mount Kumgang shows buses left behind by Hyundai Asan. Right: The buses are gone in another satellite image taken on Aug. 27, 2018 of the same zone. [GOOGLE EARTH]
North Korea may have commandeered buses belonging to a South Korean company following the suspension of tours to Mount Kumgang a decade ago.

According to an analysis of satellite images of the tourist zone by the JoongAng Ilbo and testimony from visitors to the North, buses left behind by Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company that ran tours to the area from 1998 to 2008, may be in use by the regime without authorization.

The tours, which carried thousands of South Korean visitors to Mount Kumgang since November 1998, came to an abrupt halt after a female South Korean tourist named Park Wang-ja was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier in July 2008.

A former Hyundai Asan employee said the company’s sudden removal of all personnel from the area, which was mandated by Seoul’s suspension of the tours and a subsequent departure order from Pyongyang, forced the company to leave all buses in a parking lot in the resort.

“Later on I heard that all the vehicles parked in that location had disappeared,” the former employee said.

Satellite footage of the lot in question confirmed this testimony. A photograph from April 8, 2010, showed a full fleet of 43 medium-sized buses and five other vehicles like minivans and trucks parked in a “V” formation at a gas station parking lot near Changjon Harbor at the Mount Kumgang resort.

But a photograph taken a little less than a year later - on March 28, 2011 - showed the number of buses had decreased from 43 to 30. They were parked in a new formation, lined up in two rows.

The former Hyundai Asan employee, who said the buses used to be driven by ethnic Koreans from China when the tours were active, said it was likely that North Korean officials or workers at the resort moved the buses since the company had no representatives in the area.

By October 2013, all the vehicles at that location had disappeared, leaving the lot empty.

While it is not entirely clear what happened to the vehicles, testimony from visitors suggests the North may still be using some of the buses.

One civic group worker who visited Pyongyang in October 2018 said he saw two buses with Mount Kumgang tourism labels at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang.

“The buses looked like they had carried people to attend an event at the venue,” the worker said.

Another witness who visited Mount Kumgang last November while inter-Korean ties were still active, recalled seeing a bus with a license plate that read Mount Kumgang while on the road to a hot spring in the zone. “The bus was the same one used to transport South Korean tourists,” the witness said.

Hyundai Asan’s buses and minivans used for the tours were made in South Korea. Given that 11 years have passed since the tours were suspended, it is believed that many of the vehicles may not be completely operational.

“The facilities and vehicles at the Mount Kumgang tourist area are the property of a South Korean company,” a government official said. “It would be a problem if North Korea used them without permission.”

BY JEONG YONG-SOO [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]


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