[FOUNTAIN]Free-market experiment might workThe buses came to a sudden stop on the way to the Mount Geumgang resort across the demilitarized zone. A soldier of the North Korean People’s Army boarded one of the buses and stared at a camera one tourist was holding. “I saw you taking pictures from outside,” said the soldier, who snatched the camera.
At the lobby of the Haekumgang Hotel, a Hyundai Asan staffer elaborated how North Korea has changed in the last few years. Pyeongyang used to forbid flying kites until very recently. The authorities thought a remote controlled camera could be attached to the kite to take pictures of military facilities. But this year, the government has allowed hundreds of flying kites. It’s a small but crucial change.
As the tourists headed for the scenic Nine Dragons Waterfall, one had to surrender his tourist permit. The trouble began when an elderly tourist made a joke with a vague sexual connotation to a female North Korean tour guide. As she condemned the man for his “behavioral violation,” the tourist took a picture of the quarrel. South Korean jokes aren’t appreciated in the North.
Lunch was served at the Kumgangwon. The restaurant used to receive reservations only for special guests, but after the two Koreas agreed on an overland tour, general tourists were permitted to dine there. At the requests of the tourists, a waitress sang North Korean songs.
On a cliff overlooking Samilpo, a lake near the East Sea, there was a rock carved with the lyrics of the “Song of Red Flag,” which North Korean spies sang in the movie “Silmido.” “The cowards can always leave; we will remain and protect the red flag.”
At a rest area near Samilpo, North Korean citizens were earning dollars by selling homemade North Korean food and drinks. When South Korean tourists paid with won, the merchants would call a Hyundai Asan staffer and ask to exchange the currency. The most popular fare was makgeolli with kaoliang, a traditional fermented rice drink. Tourists lined up to buy the drink, a dollar per glass.
As South Korean tourists flock to Mount Geumgang, North Korea’s attitude is gradually changing. When the cloud of the nuclear threat is removed, the breeze of reconciliation and market economy might blow at Mount Geumgang.
by Lee Kyu-youn
The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.