Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Experience Lovely Mt. Geumgang!

The Minister of Agriculture refers me to a Post article about what it's like to be a tourist on Diamond Mountain (Mt. Geumgang, or Mt. Kumgang, or Kumgang-san, or Geumgang-san-- pick your romanization) in North Korea. No surprises here, but lots of interesting points:

In the surreal world of North Korean tourism, you can feast on local delicacies served by glamorous lady comrades, watch an acrobatics show infused with Stalinist humor and climb a storied mountain covered with plaques and monuments celebrating the totalitarian Kim clan.

But be back indoors by the midnight curfew -- or face fines, questioning by authorities or, well, worse.

This is Mount Kumgang, the fortified tourist compound where the Hermit Kingdom meets the Magic Kingdom, right down to Disneyesque guys in fuzzy bear suits greeting visitors. A window into hermetically sealed North Korea since foreign visitors were granted limited access five years ago, it lies an hour's drive north of the minefields and missile batteries lining the most heavily militarized border in the world.

Here, tension is part of the attraction.

"Look, quick! North Korean soldiers!" one excited South Korean yelled to other tourists on a bus after spotting an armed squad marching by. They tripped over each other trying to get a better view.

The over-the-rainbow quality of the place offers a rare, if hyper-controlled, glimpse at life on the Cold War's last frontier.

"You are supposed to relax and have a good time," said Jang Whan Bin, senior vice president of investor relations at Hyundai Asan Corp., the South Korean company that financed and operates most of the resort. "But this is still North Korea. Things are quite different here."

"Quite different." Understatement of the year.

And the North Koreans love despoiling the natural surroundings:

No act of the Kims is too small to be noted on these ancient rocks, now coated with more than 4,000 monuments, etchings and other commemorative inscriptions to the clan. A spot where Kim Il Sung is said to have especially appreciated the view is dutifully marked with a six-foot-tall stone tablet. Elsewhere a young guard stood by an etching commemorating the exact location where Kim Jong Sook, mother of the younger Kim, once rested her weary bones.

This is an important landmark, insisted the female guard, who watches over foreign visitors and keeps out unauthorized North Koreans. Her eyes went wide when asked about the need for a monument in a place of such natural beauty.

"She was the beloved wife of the Great Leader!" fumed the guard in her fashionable red jacket with a matching propaganda pin bearing Kim Il Sung's face. "Don't you have a father? Isn't he the absolute ruler of your family? Mustn't he be obeyed? You must understand, Kim Il Sung is the father of our nation and we are his children. Everything related to him must be celebrated."

"Including his wife?" she is asked.

"Do not just call her his wife! Use her title!" she demanded.

What title?

"Her title! How can you not know her title?" Exasperated, the guard explained that Kim's wife must be referred to as "Great Revolutionary General Kim Jong Sook."

That North Koreans generally have no idea how the rest of the world looks at them is an indication of how far they've moved from being "one people" with the South. Unfortunately, South Koreans are also big into despoiling their own environment. I've been on many hikes in the mountains around Seoul; every one features pollution and large groups of hikers yelling "Yaaaaaaaaa-hooooooooo!" instead of quietly enjoying nature. The trails have been pounded into sand, which facilitates erosion... it's a far cry from hiking in Switzerland.

And here's a brief look into SK collusion with the North, plus Korean xenophobia in general:

Most of this sprawling tourist complex, including hotel, hot springs and duty-free shops including Prada and Gucci, is run by Hyundai Asan, which each month brings in about 15,000 people, mostly South Koreans. The North Koreans feared so many foreigners would contaminate the minds of the locals, so the vast majority of employees here are ethnic Koreans shipped in from China.

And don't get too comfortable at Mt. Geumgang:

Lest the mountains, lakes and tourist attractions lull you into a false sense of security, officials constantly remind guests that they are surrounded by a military installation that includes a naval base across the port from where a small cruise ship docks each week. Visitors are instructed not to talk to the locals about politics or economics. Two years ago, one South Korean woman merely suggested that her nation, which is 13 times as wealthy as the communist North, had a higher standard of living. She was arrested and held for seven days until Hyundai negotiated her release. Photos here are limited to shots of the tourist installations and specified views of Mount Kumgang itself.

There are no exceptions.

One Dutch visitor captivated by the serenity of the scene snapped a digital photo of the mountain setting with a happy sign in the background declaring "Welcome to Mount Kumgang." But she inadvertently clicked just as two North Korean soldiers with sidearms were walking by.

"Hey, you!" they barked in Korean. "Come here!"

"The soldiers were not amused," said Eunmi Postma, a Dutch journalist based in Seoul.

They demanded the tourist's camera and asked to see her passport.

"But, I mean, all I did was try to take a picture of the welcome sign," she said. "The soldiers were so far away you couldn't even make them out in the photo. I finally deleted the picture so they wouldn't take my camera.

"I know it's North Korea, but still, this is supposed to be a tourism resort. . . . What a weird place."

A reminder: visit this post, which has links to two Americans' travelogues of their trip into North Korea (read: Pyongyang) on a group tour.


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