[OUTLOOK]Learn lessons from Kumgang“Cell phones, cameras with telescopic lenses, compasses, books on North Korea and South Korean newspapers are items prohibited from being taken to North Korea. Please put them in a plastic bag and leave them in my care,” a tour guide from Hyundai-Asan advised South Korean tourists at the southern check-point in Goseong, Gangwon province. I heard her warnings and advice repeated throughout my three-day stay at Mount Kumgang. On the bus from the North Korean check-point to the Kumgangsan Hotel, the guide continued to call our attention to things prohibited in the North:
-Don’t make critical remarks or actions against North Korea.
-Don’t pick up autumn leaves, branches, plants, rocks or soil from Mount Kumgang.
-Be careful not to damage, step on, sit on or climb monuments of Kim Il Sung’s visit to places on the tourist trails.
-Don’t wash your hands, feet or handkerchiefs in the stream that runs through the valley.
-Don’t let your North Korean-issued tourist pass get wet or dirty.
-If you violate any of these warnings, you have to pay a fine.
At 6 p.m. we arrived at the Kumgangsan Hotel. While collecting our room keys, the electricity suddenly went out. We had to stand in darkness till an emergency light was turned on. We went up to our rooms, but they were pitch dark.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at 6:30 then went to the tourist center to buy lunch and dinner tickets. All 600 tourists queued at once at the six booths that sold lunch or dinner tickets. I lined up at a shorter line for dinner tickets thinking that after buying them, I would move to a lunch ticket line. But I was mistaken, for my line didn’t move fast, while the longer one became shorter. Fortunately, my wife was queuing at that one, but the lunch tickets sold out right before her turn. She pleaded for tickets and finally was sold some, but not others behind her.
Hyundai started the Mount Kumgang tour in November 1998 and the one millionth tourist visited the resort in June of this year. Also, the number of visitors increased to 1,200 per day after an overland tour opened in September 2003 and Hyundai looked likely to make a profit after six and half years of loss. However, North Korea then suddenly limited the number of tourists to 600 per day. The North was angry at Hyundai’s decision to dismiss its former vice chairman, Kim Yoon-kyu, who the North trusted.
Onjeongni, the tourist resort at the foot of Mount Kumgang where Hyundai’s tourism facilities are situated, is like an island tied to the border with a long thin thread: Modern hotels, a spa, restaurants and a tourist center are connected to a road that stretches to the border and are surrounded all around by a green iron fence. Beyond the fence are North Korean villages and many North Korean military barracks and facilities.
A lot of North Korean soldiers in formal uniforms armed with pistols are on guard. They seem to be omnipresent ― at the fence exit, entrances to military facilities, hotels, the spa and the tourist center and also along the railroad that runs beside the motor way. I could read in their facial expressions and eyes both vigilance and a sort of jealousy towards the South Korean tourists. They are actually at a battlefield fiercer than one where bullets fly. They are warriors armed thoroughly with socialist ideology and loyalty to their leadership. They are there to deter any attempts to infiltrate or contaminate the socialist paradise beyond the green fence. Along the three hiking trails open to tourists, North Korean guides are on guard. There are guides who introduce the scenic spots on the trails, but there are also those who stand guard at the side of Kim Il Sung monuments and those who watch for tourists who violate the permitted behavior. Beside the monuments stands a guide with a loud speaker. When North Koreans visit the place, the guide used to give lengthy explanations on Kim Il Sung’s instructions. In North Korea, learning Kim Il Sung’s teachings is also an important part of tourism.
Apparently there are big differences between the North Korean way of tourism and the tourism business pursued by Hyundai. Hyundai invested around $500 million in the project to create a tourist resort with accommodation for 1,900 tourists. Now that the North has limited the number to 600 per day, two thirds of the facilities are idle.
Hyundai wants to make profits by attracting more tourists and to reinvest those earnings to create a golf course and beach resorts. To attract more tourists, Hyundai knows the tour cost must be lowered. The company continuously negotiated with the North to lower the admission fee tourists pay to the North: from $300 in 1998 to $70. It certainly went against the nature of North Korea that Hyundai pursued a capitalist-style tourist business and pleaded to lower the fee. On North Korea’s part, more tourists means more people to guard against. It is only a burden for North Korea, especially its military, that a bigger number of tourists bustle about around Mount Kumgang paying less admission fees.
Protest over the dismissal of Kim Yoon-kyu is only a superficial excuse. The dispute between the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee and Hyundai is the consequence of a conflict of interest between the two sides: The North has to bear the burden of constantly imbuing its residents and its military with thorough ideological beliefs and loyalty to the leadership, while Hyundai is in the position of wanting to pursue profitable business deals. South Korean businesses that plan to participate in the North’s Kaesong or Mount Paektu tourism projects should learn a lesson from Hyundai’s Mount Kumgang project.
* The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Park Sung-soo