Journey to the Diamond MountainMount Geumgang, one of North Korea’s experiments in capitalism, is attracting thousands of visitors to what is arguably one of the most beautiful spots in Asia. A visit is also a trip to the one of the world’s most secluded and secretive countries. It might not be the most comfortable destination, but for a tourist spot you couldn’t ask for more excitement, and some would even say, tension.
In November 1998, Hyundai Asan, a firm set up by Hyundai Group to take exclusive control of business projects with North Korea, opened a hotel at the base of Mount Geumgang. In North Korea, the name is transliterated as Kumgang, which in English means “Diamond Mountain.” More than 600,000 visitors from South Korea and from around the world have traveled to the spectacular natural wonder. And North Korea is making a bundle by charging Hyundai Asan $50 a visitor.
When the resort first opened, travelers had to take a boat to reach the development, but the sea route was shut down in January this year because it was losing money. But an overland route opened in September that runs through the Demilitarized Zone, the no man’s land that has separated the two countries since the Korean War truce in 1953.
The mountain scenery is awesome, but to really appreciate the natural setting serious hiking is required to reach the high ridges, which rise to 900 meters (3,000 feet).
Visitors also have to be willing to cut themselves off from the outside world for three days ― there is no phone service, land lines or mobile, available. Hyundai only runs three-day group tours, with no individual packages.
North Koreans work at the resort as tour guides or guards, and sometimes they will engage in a conversation. Security is not a concern; personal safety is guaranteed under an accord signed by the two Koreas.
Mount Geumgang has opened its doors to all who are willing to take a bus for several hours to reach this southern enclave in secretive North Korea. Here is the story of my visit to the Diamond Mountain, its Nine Dragon Waterfalls and its heavenly pearl lakes.
At 7:50 a.m. on Feb. 11, I boarded a chartered bus run by Hyundai Asan near the headquarters of the company in Gye-dong, central Seoul, right beside the front gate of Biwon, or Changdeok Palace’s Secret Garden. The ticket cost 30,000 won ($24) for a round trip.
The ride took five hours to reach Kumgangsan Condominium, a tourist lodging facility located in Goseong, Gangwon province. The facility is 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of the inter-Korean border. Hyundai Asan officials handed out temporary tourist identity cards issued by North Korea, which would serve as a visa.
Hyundai officials also checked the zoom capability of cameras and asked tourists to leave unauthorized cameras, cell phones and computers in their hands. Jung Young-sil, the tour guide assigned to my group, told us that North Korea does not permit tourists to carry cameras with a zoom of more than 160 mm without permission. I had to give up my cell phone and camera with its 170 mm lens.
After a 40-minute ride, we reached South Korea’s Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Office located inside the Civilian Control Line, where no one is allowed without permission from the military. Around 120 tourists waited for Hyundai tour buses, which would drop off visitors returning from Mount Geumgang and then take us back. At 3:10 p.m., we passed through the departure gate with a simple check of our identification and luggage.
The bus drivers greeted us. “Drivers are Korean-Chinese who we hired from Yianbian, China,” Byun Ha-jung, a Hyundai official accompanying us, said. “There are about 350 Korean-Chinese working for Mount Geumgang tourism. Only 20 officials from South Korea are staying in the resort to manage the project.”
A South Korean military police vehicle escorted our group to the Geumgang Gate, one of eight gates into North Korea in the Demilitarized Zone.
Jung Young-sil, the tour guide assigned to our group, warned us to avoid taking any pictures while we made the trip. I saw wild deer and South Korean soldiers while the bus traveled over a dirt road, heading north.
“Hyundai is paving a road leading to Mount Geumgang,” Ms. Jung said. “The new road will open as early as April.”
After leaving the South Korean post, it took five minutes to cross the Military Demarcation Line, which was marked only by a rusted sign. All of us felt a bit on edge. A moment later, we saw North Korean soldiers guarding the North’s gate. I was tense, even though I knew I wasn’t the first person to enter North Korean territory, which had been forbidden to South Koreans for 50 years.
On the left side of the road we were on, North Korean soldiers in black fatigues were working to build a railroad bed. “The equipment and fuel were provided by the South Korean government and Hyundai,” Ms. Jung said.
North Korean soldiers in military uniforms stood at 100-yard intervals, each holding a red flag, along the road to Mount Geumgang. Ms. Jung said if any tourist took a picture, a soldier who noticed would raise a red flag, and then the bus would be stopped.
Elsewhere along the road North Korean civilians appeared to be going about their everyday activities, walking or riding bicycles.
An hourlong-ride took us to North Korea’s official visitors’ processing office, which is located just 30 yards from the Haekumgang Hotel, a floating hotel in a port near the resort area. Tourists were asked to take out their cameras so that North Korean soldiers could check whether the zooms were under the set limit. After screening my luggage with an X-ray scanner, an official unzipped my suitcase and pointed to my electronic shaver and asked me what it was.
When examining the bags of Anne Schneppen, a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reporter, North Korean officials took away her notebook computer without explanation.
Mr. Byun complained to them, “You permitted her to bring in the computer two weeks ago. Why do you take it now?” Their response: “Regulations changed a few days ago.”
A few minutes later, North Korean soldiers took my digital camera away. I had taken pictures of villas, which had opened last month 200 yards away from the Haekumgang Hotel to house 260 guests a day. The soldiers said there was a military guard post on a hill behind the villas.
I argued with the soldiers because they had allowed us to take the photos. I was the first person who took a photo of the villas. They impounded my camera, insisting that they had to clear it with their supervisor.
My room was on the fourth floor of the six-story hotel, which can accommodate 400 guests. A television set was pre-set to South Korean channels only.
My group took a bus to the Onjunggak Rest House to have dinner. This time, the trip was more relaxed ― no convoy and no North Korean soldiers with red flags watching along the road.
Instead, there was a long wire fence. “Within the resort boundary designated by the fence, tourists have been allowed to walk or move freely since January without North Korean guides,” Mr. Byun told us.
At the restaurant, which Hyundai also operates, a Korean buffet was offered for $10 per person, with the exchange rate fixed at 1,200 won to the dollar. The food was not bad. I ate barbecued beef, seasoned fish, noodles and cooked rice along with kimchi. The vegetables, which come from a green house managed by North Koreans, tasted especially good. Most of the other food comes from Seoul, we were told.
Souvenir stores, right beside the restaurant, sold North Korean products and goods ; duty-free shops offered cosmetics, whiskey and handbags. Credit cards were not accepted in most cases. The shops took either Korean won or U.S. dollars, with all prices rounded off to the nearest dollar. The stores weren’t equipped to handle change. At a convenience store, which was also in the resting area, I bought two bottles of drinking water with a $1 bill, but I could not buy one bottle for 50 cents.
At night, on the first floor of the hotel, three Filipinos sang English and Korean pop songs. Those in search of more entertainment could go to the basement to visit a karaoke bar or an entertainment salon with Russian hostesses.
I woke up at 6 a.m., well before the 7:30 a.m. tour was to get under way. The breakfast was an American-style buffet, with some Korean touches. I had a choice of bread or porridge; there was orange juice and bean sprout soup.
At 8:30 a.m., at the foot of the mountain, we met our North Korean hiking guides.
Using the toilets on the mountain was a bit of a surprise. To urinate, Ms. Jung told us, we would have to pay $1; other relief was $4. She said the North Koreans would make sure they charged us accordingly. (You can use the toilets in Hyundai’s facilities for free.)
Along our trek, at every monument devoted to resting spots used by the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and his son, the current leader, Kim Jong-il, a pair of North Koreans stood guard. There are a dozen of these resting spots. The sentinels were there to make sure that we did not litter, spit on, sit on, step on or insult the monuments and pedestals. Violators are liable to be fined from $10 to $40.
If we needed more reminders about where we were, slogans praising North Korea’s leaders and ideology were carved on rocks in the mountain. Kim Il Sung was lionized as “The Great Leader” and the Juche, or self-reliance, Ideology of the North was lauded.
The route we took was a narrow trail on which two persons could barely pass. Crossing the first bridge en route to Kuryong, or the Nine Dragons Falls, there was a North Korean restaurant called Mokrankwan that sold naengmyeon, or cold noodles, in summer. It was closed for the winter for lack of guests.
From there, I could appreciate the mountain. Ms. Jung told us several fables about certain rocks, such as those shaped like an elephant, turtle, lizard and rabbit with a turtle’s body. Beautiful mountain ponds, big and small, appeared one after another. Large trees rooted in the rocks stood all around the valley like a folding screen.
Near the end of the trail, we had to climb an almost vertical peak for 30 minutes. Drenched in sweat and out of breath, I finally reached the top. Several older tourists gave up climbing the peak. Some college students seemed to enjoy the steep trail.
After two hours, I made it to where I could survey a wide area. There was Sangpaldam, eight ponds connected like a pearl necklace. The pools are the setting for a famous Korean fable of a woodcutter and a nymph.
A North Korean guide told me the spring and fall are more beautiful. Identifying himself as Kim Chol-bong, he talked with me for 20 minutes about the South Korean economy, political summits, nuclear talks and the Gaeseong industrial park. We kept walking to see Kuryong, while other North Korean guides went back down. The gigantic frozen cascade was astounding. When flowing, the torrent must be thunderous.
Then we turned to go back down, and after lunch at the restaurant at Onjunggak Rest House, our tour buses took us to Samilpo, a lake near the East Sea. A North Korean military convoy led the way.
The lake used to be a famous fishing spot. At a North Korean restaurant called Danpungkwan, or Maple restaurant, several people bought calendars featuring North Korean entertainers for a dollar.
Here again, local guides spoke to me of North Korea’s plans to unify the country gradually by narrowing the economic gap between two Koreas. Mr. Byun told me the officials were sent from Pyeongyang to promote North Korea to the tourists.
Five minutes walk from the Onjunggak Rest House is a hot spring spa where I had a dip in the indoor and outdoor baths. It was wonderful to ease the stiffness brought by the morning hike. Korean-Chinese masseurs and masseuses charged $12 for a rubdown The rate for entering the spa was $8 on the first day and $10 on the second day. I couldn’t figure out why there was a difference.
In the early evening in a modern 800-seat theater built by Hyundai at the rest house area, a North Korean acrobatic troupe performed for an hour. When the troupe sang a North Korean welcoming song at the end of the show, the audience, in an emotional moment, stood and applauded loudly. The cost of the show was $25 with $5 more for a special seat.
We made a dinner reservation for a $25-dollar-a-person meal at Kumgangkwon, one of three North Korean restaurants in the area. The lights were so dim that we could barely see our dinner plates. Beside the restaurant, there was Kumgangsan Hotel where several inter-Korean talks have taken place. Hyundai Asan leased the building and was remodeling it to open in April as a lodge for non-Koreans.
At the end of the day Ms. Jung gave me my digital camera and handed back the notebook computer to Ms. Sneppen, the German journalist on the tour.
We woke again at 6:00 a.m., this time to check out. The bus followed a winding road with more than 100 turns and switchbacks up to the parking lot where tourists walk to a mountain peak to see Manmulsang, which means “all things in the universe.”
Two German journalists on our trip wanted to talk with a North Korean guide and I stayed behind to act as an interpreter. The guide, among other things, said he was aware of the economic gap between the two Koreas. He talked about a German-style model for Korean reunification, but rejected it. He said South Korea should invest in North Korea, and that his country needed nuclear arms to ward off a U.S. invasion.
He also told us that the reunification of the two Koreas will come true when the United States withdraws from the Korean Peninsula. I really wanted to climb, but by that time my fellow travellers were on their way down. They said it was hard to describe how immense Manmulsang was.
Back again at Onjunggak, we had a chance to see the monument dedicated to the late Chung Mong-hun, former chairman of Hyundai Asan. Mr. Chung committed suicide last August in the middle of prosecutors’ investigation into Hyundai’s involvement in paying large bribes to North Korea.
Then I headed back south and home to Seoul. Around 2:00 p.m., we passed through the North Korean border post. They checked all our cameras again to make sure that we were returning with the cameras we brought with us. At the South Korean border, I got back my mobile phone and a film camera I had left three days earlier. The way back to Seoul seemed long.
What to do if you get sick
If you fall ill during a trip to Mount Geumgang, help is available.
My wife came down with a bad sore throat on the second morning of our visit. A Hyundai Asan official took her to a clinic next to the Onjunggak Rest House. Dr. Kang Wook-shik, 72, a surgeon who received his degree from Chonnam University in South Korea, examined her and wrote a prescription. Ahn Hyang-ran, a nurse hired from China, gave my wife a flu shot and prepared the prescription.
The clinic, set up in December 1998, runs from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. and is free to tourists.
The doctor and two nurses live in a residential complex built for the Hyundai Asan officials. Hyundai is able to take emergency measures for patients.
If a person were in critical condition, a military helicopter from South Korea would transport the patient to a general hospital in Gangwon province. Hyundai said there has been only one such case.
The quality of care appeared to be good. My wife, after taking the medicine, recovered the next morning.
Reservation: Call (02) 3669-3692 or visit www.mtkumgang.com. Tour costs range from 290,000 to 400,000 won.
Tip: Non-Korean citizens need their passports. Better wear mountain-climbing boots and clothes and bring U.S. dollars. You should consult with Hyundai officials about cameras and camcorders.
Check with Hyundai Asan officials about transportation to Kumgangsan Condominium, where you pick up documents necessary to enter North Korea.
Future attractions: Hyundai plans to open a golf course, a ski and sled slope and a cable car. A beach opens in the summer. Hyundai is negotiating with North Korea to allow tourists to visit a non-resort area.
by Lee Moo-young