The North’s tourist destinationMOUNT GEUMGANG
The time has long passed when the song “Missing Mount Geumgang” was South Koreans’ only connection to the famous “diamond mountain” of the North.
Last month marked the sixth anniversary of Mount Geumgang tour packages, which Hyundai Group launched in November 1998. Since then, more than 820,000 South Koreans have made the trip.
Getting there is becoming easier and easier. When the tours began in 1998, the only way to reach the mountain from the South was to board a cruise liner, which took 13 hours to get from South Korea’s Donghae Port to North Korea’s Goseong Port.
But last year, a new highway crossing the Demilitarized Zone was completed, opening up an overland route. And last month, a train tour package became available, taking visitors to Gangwon province, where they transfer to another train that brings them to the mountain.
Next year, according to Hyundai Asan, which runs the tour programs, it will become possible for visitors to drive north through the DMZ in their own cars (escorted by the military). Meanwhile, Mount Geumgang’s tourism options are being sweetened. Last month, work began on a 27-hole golf course, scheduled to open next October.
But no matter how unremarkable a visit to Mount Geumgang is perhaps becoming, it’s still a unique experience for South Koreans and foreigners alike ―one that involves crossing the last remaining no man’s land on Earth created by an ideological divide.
From Seoul, it’s about a six-hour drive east to Goseong, a county in Gangwon province which itself is divided into North and South. This is where Geumgangsan Condominium is located, the only entry point to the North for tourists.
After surrendering your cell phones and reading matter to Hyundai staff, and going through immigration procedures, you board a bus and soon find yourself approaching the DMZ. South Korean army vehicles escort the buses through the southern half of the DMZ; after the buses cross the Military Demarcation Line, the North Korean military takes over. Once the convoy is past the DMZ and officially in the North, the buses are stopped, and North Korean soldiers march onto the bus.
The chill you get when these North Korean officers pass by bears no comparison to anything from the movies. Along the road, soldiers stand at 500-meter intervals, ready to wave a red flag should they see anyone take a picture. Among the items you can’t bring to the North are cameras with lenses of more than 160mm and field glasses with greater than 10x magnification. Written materials, such as newspapers and magazines, are banned, as is any item bearing the flag of any country but North Korea. Still, it’s hard to suppress the urge to take pictures from the bus when passing by Onjeongni village, where you can see children playing and oxen pulling wagons, a sight not seen in the South since the 1980s.
With your first step onto North Korean soil, you are greeted by signs (both in Korean and English) that read “Welcome to Mt. Geumgang, the biggest diamond on Earth,” and by loudspeakers playing the North Korean song “Bangapseumnida” (“Glad to Meet You”). But the real eye-openers are the banners and signs with messages like “Let’s live our way,” “Down with the puppets of American imperialism” and, of course, “Kim Jong-il, the great general from Heaven,” in a big, red, very North Korean style. Such catchphrases are almost everywhere, visible even from the hotel rooms, and are constant reminders that you’re not in the South anymore.
The mountain itself is divided into two parts: Nae-Geumgang (“inner Geumgang”), considered the feminine side of the mountain because of its gentler slopes, and Oe-Geumgang (“outer Geumgang”), the masculine side, with its more dramatic cliffs. Foreign visitors are restricted to Oe-Geumgang.
A three-day, two-night tour (see prices at the bottom of this article) offers the longest itinerary and the most attractions. Guryong (“Nine Dragons”) Waterfall is where, according to legend, nine dragons reside to protect the mountain. The waterfall is also the site of a Korean folktale about the love between a fairy and a woodcutter. Samilpo (“Three-Day Lake”) gets its name from an anecdote about a king who planned to stay there for a day, but ended up staying for three because he found it so beautiful. Manmulsang (“All Things in the Universe”) lives up to its name with a spectacular view of cliffs and rock formations. You have to climb up steep, rocky paths to get to most of these attractions, but it’s definitely worth it. There are restaurants on the mountain and near the hotels, serving local food like naengmyeon (cold noodles) in pheasant stock, a must-have on a trip to the North.
But the best part of the trip might be the opportunity to mingle with the North Korean guides. According to the Hyundai guide designated to our tour bus, the attitude of the North Korean guides has changed drastically since the start of the program, when they were cold and aloof; nowadays, they’re much warmer to foreign visitors, though you still have to be careful not to say anything critical about their government. Along the paths up on the mountain await North Korean guides with Kim Il Sung badges on their chests, usually a man paired with a woman. Civilians sell snacks along the way, hawking their wares in a way that seems downright capitalistic: “Come on, sirs, have a hot cup of coffee here. A delicious coffee is just two dollars here.”
The North Korean guides are said to be the products of a meticulous screening process, and one can well believe it: Every single one of them is smart, well-mannered and good-looking, particularly the women. A guide identifying himself only as Mr. Kim smiled brightly as he said, “Go ahead and ask anything. Please do not hesitate,” while zipping up the jumpers of some elderly tourists.
Asked to sing a North Korean song, a guide in her early 20s didn’t hesitate for a moment, and soon had a large audience. The group was taken aback when she said, “Okay, sirs and madams, it’s your turn.” When we didn’t quite meet her expectations, she almost ordered us to sing a South Korean pop song, “Mannam” (“Encounter”). After the song ended, her partner told us, “We could easily steam you and eat you” ―a North Korean saying, it turns out, meaning “we can easily beat you.” The woman gave us a singing lesson, adding, “The last part of the song, where it goes ‘I love you,’ has to be changed to ‘I love reunification.’”
For more contact with North Koreans (you can’t take their pictures, though), Hotel Geumgangsan is the place to stay. Unlike the other option, Hotel Haegeumgang (which is on a barge in Goseong Port), it has a North Korean staff. Waitresses are dressed in modified traditional garb; you are taught to call them “jeopdaewon dongmu” (“receptionist comrade”). In the 12th-floor “sky lounge” one night, a few receptionist comrades sang North Korean karaoke; our group had to climb the 12 floors, because the elevator wasn’t working, but it was worth it to see their karaoke videos, which they call hwamyeon eumak (“screened music”). When they first used the term, we asked what it meant; they gave us a look and said, “You South Korean comrades use too many words from other languages.”
The bar serves liquor ranging from the well-known deuljjuksul (blueberry wine) to a bottle labeled “medicinal wine for arthritis made from tiger bone.” You can also buy these at a souvenir shop, along with “snake wine,” “serpent wine” and “pine mushroom wine.” It’s a pity we were limited to one bottle per person.
As our bus headed south toward the demarcation line, the loudspeakers this time played a song called “So Long, Let’s Meet Again.” It lingered in the memory well into the journey home.
by Chun Su-jin
For general information on the tour packages, call Hyundai Asan at (02) 3669-3000, or visit http://www.mtkumgang.com (Korean only). Day trips cost from 120,000 won (about $110) to 150,000 won; two-day-one-night packages, 200,000 won to 320,000 won; three-day-two-night, 200,000 won to 540,000 won. For train tour information, call (02) 736-9111; adult prices for train tour packages this month range from 133,100 won to 164,900 won.