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North Korea Tourism


S-N Tourism Venture Picks Up Steam

By Na Jeong-ju, staff reporter (koreatimes 13/06/05)

Mt. Kumgang.
North Korea is eager to keep its joint tourism project with South Korea on track, and is willing to offer various business concessions to its partners in the South.

Some international media still remain doubtful as to whether Pyongyang, which is pursuing nuclear weapons programs, is really changing to do business with capitalistic companies. But signs abound that the reclusive state badly wants to keep up the pace of the venture, one of the largest sources of hard currency for the Communist country.

With the fifth anniversary of the first summit between the leaders of the divided nations on June 15, 2000, just around the corner, a large-scale construction project is underway at the foot of this scenic mountain on the North’s eastern coast to build attractions for South Korean tourists.

North Korea plans to open a branch of Ongnyugwan, a famous restaurant in Pyongyang, at Mt. Kumgang this month to serve South Korean tourists.

Trucks, construction equipment and busy workers are on site to build a family resort complex that will include an 18-hole golf course and hotels with North Korean soldiers on guard. Everyday, South Korean workers go through checks by the soldiers to get to their jobsites, but there is little conversation.

'We rarely talk to each other, but there is chemistry. We take pride in working toward the same goal: reunification of the two Koreas,'’ said Lee Joong-myong, president of Emerson Pacific, which is in charge of construction of the golf course. The golf course, built on an area of 2.3 million square meters formally used for a military base, will include the world’s longest par seven 1,014-yard fairway. In the North, golf is viewed as a sport of the rich and corrupt bourgeoisie, but it accepted its business partners’ demand to build one at Mt. Kumgang, just north of the 4-kilometer wide military buffer zone between North and South Korea.

This decision shows how dedicated the North is to the South-North tourism project, according to Lee. Moreover, North Korea has allowed South Korean companies to develop a 109-kilometer-long coastline between Mt. Kumgang and Wonsan into a huge resort belt for South Korean sightseers. Hyundai Asan, which will lead the project, says that in a long term, the area will be turned into a world-class resort complex.

The tourism project, initiated in 1998 amid the warming inter-Korean relationship, has been in jeopardy several times due mainly to international tension over the North’s nuclear programs and other political matters. Now, more than 1,300 South Koreans visit daily, and the number of tourists has grown sharply in recent months.

In 2003, Hyundai Asan had to suspend the trips for two months at the request of the North due to the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Seoul. The company resumed the trips after the government beefed up quarantine procedures for South Koreans returning from the mountain. When the number of daily tourists fell to under 100 because of political tension several years ago, it left Hyundai Asan with huge debts, and that meant a loss for North Korea too, according to the Hyundai Asan vice chairman Kim Yoon-kyu.

'Hyundai Asan and North Korea are on the same ship,' Kim said. 'This project is a symbol of inter-Korean approchement and reconciliation.'

Knowing the tourism project will become an important cash cow for the cash-strapped regime, North Korea has responded more seriously to the requests of its South Korean partners.

On June 8, Ri Jong-hyok, vice chairman of the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, which overseas the South-North tourism project, attended a ceremony hosted by Hyundai Asan at Mt. Kumgang and paid his respects to former Hyundai Asan chairman Chung Mong-hun, who committed suicide in 2000 amid political turmoil over its payments to North Korea. Chung was at the center of an investigation by South Korean prosecutors for his role in the behind-the-scenes $500-million money transfer made before the 2000 summit.

'We face threats from conservative forces in the South and the American imperialists. They mount pressure to let us down, but we won’t give in,' Ri said in a speech. 'No matter what, this project must go on and help the divided Koreas move closer.'

For its part, Hyundai Asan, arm of Hyundai Group for its North Korean business, seeks to draw more concessions from the North to promote its business despite lingering uncertainties over Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

The company said it has obtained approval from the North to develop the beach area near Mt. Kumgang into a tourist venue for South Koreans during the summer season. 'People can drive their own cars to the beach and set up tents,' Kim said. 'This will be possible as early as this summer.'

To that end, Hyundai Asan seeks to draw investment from the South Korean public. Shops, restaurants and lodging facilities will be established along the beach.

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Henry Peters, a dutch man with an interesting DPRK site. Lots of pictures, several songs and a video of the parade held on the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea and aired by North Korean TV.
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Some other Dutch DPRK travelers, Jos and Peter.
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In Dutch, a story of people who visited North Korea during their Trans Mongolia Tour by train.
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