Kaesong bluesThese days, North Koreans are not allowed to visit Pakyon Falls in Kaesong in the morning. That restriction is due to South Korean tourists.
The landmark waterfall is one of the “three beauties of Songdo” also known as the “City of Pine,” the old name for Kaesong (the other “beauties” are entertainer Hwang Jin-i and scholar Suh Kyung-deok). The waterfall, Taehung Mountain Fort and Kwanum Temple are off-limits to North Korean residents from 9 a.m. until noon while groups of tourists from the South visit the sights.
In the afternoon, when South Korean visitors tour sites in downtown Kaesong such as the Sunjuk Bridge, the Sungyang Suwon Confucian academy and the Koryo Museum, North Koreans are not allowed to visit the important historic and cultural spots.
In terms of the three elements of tourism ― sightseeing, eating and shopping ― the one-day tours of Kaesong that started on Dec. 5, 2007 offer a decent itinerary.
The tourists can briefly visit all the landmarks and monuments in Kaesong and lunch on the traditional13-plate meal on brass tableware. Before returning home, they can open their wallets and spend dollars at the souvenir shop.
However, various restrictions make the visit more like a field trip than a tour. While their bus is moving, the tourists are not allowed to take photographs. The shabby streets remind us of old times, and the North Koreans are so small you might think they are a different race from the people of the South. There are red signs with slogans such as “Thank You, Great Leader” and “Long live General Kim Jong-il, the sun of the 21st Century!”
However, you cannot take photos of these sights. You cannot avoid the three North Korean officers onboard each bus as tour guides, and on the way home, all the photographs you have taken during the trip will be inspected. Since you are not allowed to freely communicate with the locals, you feel like you have visited a film set.
Nevertheless, the overland tour to Kaesong is a big hit among South Koreans. It is hard to find an empty seat on 10 buses leaving for Kaesong through the Demilitarized Zone every morning at 8 except on Mondays.
More than 9,000 people have taken the tour in its first month, and the number of tourists is expected to reach 10,000 a month in the near future. People from outside Seoul can buy a two-day package that combines a KTX ride with a visit to Kaesong. The Kaesong tour has become so popular that all the seats are booked until the end of the month. Hyundai Asan is planning to continue sending tourists during the Lunar New Year holiday next month.
While a trip to Mt. Kumgang only features natural scenery, people are more interested in the Kaesong tour because of their curiosity to visit the capital of Koryo and personally see North Koreans up close.
The tour can be easily reserved without a special registration procedure, so it is also popular among foreigners. BBC World has chosen the Kaesong Tour as one of the four attractions of Korean tourism in 2008.
Hyundai Asan charges 180,000 won ($192) per person regardless of age and pays $100 of it to the North in cash, including $20 for the lunch. When 10,000 people visit Kaesong every month, Pyongyang gets $1 million in cash each month.
The North Koreans working at the Kaesong Industrial Complex receive $60.30 a month, on average. Compared to the $1.2 million dollars the 20,000 North Korean workers earn at the complex, tourism is a substantial income source for Pyongyang.
When you go to Kaesong, about the only North Koreans you can interact with at present are the tour guides and salespersons. However, the North could not prevent Kaesong residents from gazing even from afar at the South Korean guests. North Korean authorities have limited the scope of opening because of worries; they are allowing the venture for the money.
Kaesong folk are known for their moneymaking skills. They have been known to hold sway on nationwide commerce and know better than anyone that if they want to make real money, they need to offer more serious tourism. The Kaesong tour cannot be truly lucrative until it offers a real tour. The North will have no choice but to open up more and reveal itself. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok