Travel to Mt. Kumgang Must Continue

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Travel to Mt. Kumgang Must Continue

We all hope to start afresh each time a year comes to an end and we start on a new journey, but the year 2001 began with turmoil and confusion. It seems better that Koreans celebrate a new beginning according to the lunar calendar in a few weeks.

As I spent the New Year''s holiday -- not by the lunar calendar -- I was most distressed at the news that Hyundai''s tourist venture in North Korea''s Mt. Kumgang faces the risk of suspension. Hyundai reportedly scraped the bottom of the barrel to send its payments to North Korea on Dec. 29.

It is hard to believe that the Mt. Kumgang tourism project is already in crisis. I can still remember the excitement that swept through the nation as it watched Hyundai''s Kumgang-ho set sail for the first time two years ago.

From the start, the Mt. Kumgang tourism venture was not based on economic logic or a meticulous calculation of the balance sheet''s bottom line. If profitability had been a factor in making the decision to operate the tours, no company would have decided to taken on such a business on the contract terms that were agreed to. The Mt. Kumgang project won national support because it was motivated by nationalistic sentiment, not business logic.

No one knew that Mt. Kumgang was going to become accessible and the floodgates of reunification open as if a part of the iron barriers that had been standing between the two Koreas for 50 years collapsed overnight.

While the cruises to Mt. Kumgang might be in crisis as a business project as is reported these days, we cannot begin to calculate the contributions it has brought to North-South cooperation, to the current administration''s sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea and to improving South Korea''s external credibility.

Above all else, the joy of the people as they witnessed inter-Korean exchanges and nursed hopes of overcoming national division are immeasurable. The disappointment and shock they will feel should the Mt. Kumgang cruises be suspended do not even bear thinking about.

Fortunately, the government is aware of the repercussions that the suspension of travel to the mountain will bring about, and it seems to be trying to help the cruises continue. As one of the rescue plans, it is even considering allowing Hyundai to open a casino on the cruise liners bound for Mt. Kumgang. But this plan needs careful consideration as to whether it is the right answer.

The reason Koreans view the Mt. Kumgang tourism project not simply as a business venture of Hyundai Asan but as a national enterprise is because it gives them the chance to see Mt. Kumgang in North Korea, not simply to take a cruise and gamble to their heart''s content.

Once this perception of the special nature of the trip is gone, the essence of the project changes. A more fundamental prescription is necessary to keep the tourism business alive.

It is a well-known fact that Hyundai''s Mt. Kumgang project is destined to lose money because of the excessively high fees North Korea levies for entering the mountain area.

North Korea charges every traveler $200 just to land at the port in the area; this is an exorbitantly high fee compared to any standard in the world.

North Korea is said to have collected $270 million in admission fees alone. I am not completely aware of the significance of this sum, or of the full details of the 30-year contract Hyundai signed with North Korea, which includes both the tourism project and other development projects to be carried out in the Mt. Kumgang area.

Hyundai and North Korea struck a business deal that was beyond our dreams. If such a business is in danger of suspension after only two years of operation due to the unreasonable details of the contract, it is natural for us to hope for the two parties to demonstrate wisdom through cooperation in negotiating a more workable deal. It is time for North Korea to give back something to the South.

A more fundamental solution is for more people to go on the trips to Mt. Kumgang. Far more South Koreans have to travel to Mt. Kumgang, if only to help the project continue. Did they not demonstrated their unity by donating gold to the government to help the nation stave off bankruptcy a few years ago?

Some South Koreans find the travel expenses of at least 500,000 won ($416) too much and others find the four-day trip too long. But the number of South Koreans going on overseas trips has long since exceeded the 1 million mark. All of them plan on spending more than 500,000 won and four days.

Others say they are not going to Mt. Kumgang because there is not much to see. I wish to remind these people of Yi Dynasty poet Lee Sang-soo, who once said: "Mt. Kumgang is called a beautiful mountain not because the mountain boasts of its own beauty. It became a universally shared opinion because all the people who have been to the mountain said so."

The pleasure we gain from the beauty of Mt. Kumgang is worth far more than what we have to pay for a chance to appreciate it. The mountain is calling out to us to come and see its splendor.
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