At play in the Hermit Kingdom


Resort: Fifty years after the nations were divided by war, a firm from rival South Korea opens a small patch of capitalism to tourists.

February 19, 2000|By Valerie Reitman | Valerie Reitman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CHANGJON, North Korea -- To get to the new vacation spot at the edge of this Hermit Kingdom, tourists must travel by boat under cover of night, starting out in the wrong direction, then doubling back. Upon arrival they must surrender powerful cameras and binoculars.

Eight-foot barbed-wire fences surround the "resort" compound, barring ordinary North Koreans from entry while fencing in tourists. Heavy penalties discourage everything from taking photos to talking politics or economics with North Korean "minders." And only U.S. dollars, please, for that 40 percent alcohol "Bear Bones" liquor ($15) or the "Vigor of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea" health elixir ($25).

Set amid the fabled Kumgang Mountains and run by the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Group, this patch of capitalism opened to non-Korean tourists for the first time this month.

Hyundai dubs the four-day, three-night excursion to Communist North Korea the "Dream Tour."

Sentimental journey

South Koreans have been coming in droves since the tours began in late 1998: More than 150,000 people have shelled out at least $750 apiece for the journey, which includes two days of hiking amid peaks carved with giant ideological inscriptions from the late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. Visitors from South Korea are so enthusiastic about the tour that some couples have taken their wedding vows on board the ship.

Korean folklore, poetry and songs extol the beauty of Kumgang's thousands of jagged peaks. Though they are not nearly as spectacular as the Alps, Andes or Sierra Nevada, the so-called Diamond Mountains have become a metaphor for South Koreans' longing for the beloved area close to their border but off-limits for five decades. "We are missing the Kumgang Mountains," laments one classic South Korean song.

For some tourists, the journey is particularly sentimental: When war tore the peninsula apart a half-century ago, an estimated 1 million families were separated. Though the "Dream Tour" forbids interaction with local residents, setting foot in the North can be soul-stirring.

"I didn't come for the mountains," says Song Hee Chou, 67. "I came because it's my home." Song has no idea what became of the parents, brother and sister he left behind a half-century ago. "I just wanted to set foot in the place," he says, his voice choking.

It was the stuff of spy novels that lured Norwegian Nils Klepp, 31, to pay $410, the discounted price offered to about 100 foreigners who join several hundred South Koreans on the venture. The two Koreas technically remain at war. A total of 1.8 million soldiers, including about 37,000 U.S. soldiers, are posted along the demilitarized zone, the world's most heavily fortified border.

"I came to see the Cold War," says Klepp, a naval architect working in South Korea. "I wanted to see Kalashnikovs [rifles], barking Alsatian dogs and men in green suits."

He got the green suits galore: Stone-faced North Korean military officers, clad in faded double-breasted gray-green coats with gold buttons and red epaulets, stand sentry nearly every 100 yards along what appears to be the sole paved road in the area. The road is accessible only to the tour buses and Hyundai vehicles, which travel from the resort area to the hiking trails, a lake and the coast of the Sea of Japan.

In one area, a dirt path used by residents runs parallel to the paved road, separated by a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. Glimpses of what appears to be real life in North Korea can be seen through the fence, although even that is a matter of some debate.

"It seemed like the `Truman Show,' " says Arthur Guiness of Pasadena, Calif. "Almost everything we saw seemed paraded before us. Even the bicycles seemed like they were programmed to go by at a certain time, and some of the buildings seemed to be just facades, with no windows."

The North Korean government forbids residents from working at what American Stanley Lobdell, who runs a garment business in Seoul, dubs "Camp Hyundai." The conglomerate hires ethnic Koreans from China who work for $300 a month, one-tenth what it would cost Hyundai to hire South Koreans for the same jobs.

The term "resort" is a stretch: The few facilities include some souvenir shops, concession stands and a performance hall where visitors can shell out $25 extra to see the Pyongyang Circus. A Hyundai guide says the hall was built to resemble the Sydney Opera House, to which an Australian tourist jokes, "I've never been so insulted."

There's also a spa ($12 extra) with indoor and outdoor baths with mountain vistas, and a dock for the cruise liners. Hyundai plans to open hotels at the site and erect a golf course and ski slope.

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