North Korea opens for tourism ... but be careful where you look

Korea 2007

By Elizabeth Sullivan

June 09, 2009

Published in The Plain Dealer

Those unlucky or unwise enough to fumble one of the many rules for foreign tourists in North Korea quickly discover the sinister side of the Dear Leader's version of a mountain getaway.

All it took on a recent visit across the last hostile front line of the Cold War was a tourist who held up his camera and apparently took a picture.

With a yell and a quick swish of his red flag, an excited North Korean soldier came running down the road just north of the Demilitarized Zone, pointing angrily at the offender. Above the scene gleamed the first of many banners lauding the Dear Leader -- North Korean President Kim Jong Il -- and his late father, Great Leader Kim Il Sung.

As the mass of mostly South Korean and Taiwanese tourists wearing brightly colored parkas, new hiking boots and elaborate ID cards scuttled to reboard their buses, the offending man was shoved to the side. A tight-faced North Korean soldier waved a woman who may have been the tourist's wife away. She hurried off, looking worried, to board her bus.

The offender's detention didn't seem to last long -- probably just long enough to erase the digital image -- but the message was heard.

Foreign visitors now flocking to the North's new tourist resorts -- replete with U.S.-style designer sinks, heated floors, German hair dryers and even Smucker's made-in-Ohio jam with breakfast -- have the right to spend their dollars. But if they try to peer beneath the North Korean regime's surreal attempt to Potemkinize a failing economy and a struggling people, they will be slapped down.

Sometime next year, the total number of foreign visitors to Mount Kumgang -- the most luxurious of the North Korean tourism outposts, a hiking and beach resort in a strikingly beautiful mountain region just across the South Korean border -- is likely to surpass 2 million.

That includes about 2,000 Americans, plus our group of about 20 journalists, editors and radio and television producers who crossed the border earlier this month on a fact-finding trip sponsored by the Gatekeeper Editors' fellowship of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Our two-day stay in the North was a bizarre education in post-Stalinist group control.

Unlike in Cuba, American tourism to North Korea is not prohibited by the U.S. government. U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill, a popular former ambassador to South Korea, calls the dollar impact marginal. South Korean officials insist the trickle-down intrusion of Western values is worth the price of admission.

Still, the North Korean government pockets much of the hard cash the tourism generates -- including millions in "royalties" paid by the South Korean company Hyundai Asan, which runs the resorts.

Hyundai Asan, an arm of one of South Korea's biggest industrial conglomerates, the automaker Hyundai, acknowledges paying the North $466 million in royalty fees since the late 1990s, on top of hundreds of millions in infrastructure investments. The South Korean government also is a major partner in Hyundai Asan's tourism and industrial projects in the North.

Hyundai Asan Senior Vice President Jang Whan-bin, however, says the Mount Kumgang royalty payment is decreasing every year. It's projected at about $12 million this year.

Tourism dipped last year after Pyongyang set off a nuclear test. But this year, it is at a record pace, Jang said, and could rise even more in coming years after Hyundai Asan opens a companion resort at Mount Paektu, North Korea's tallest peak, near the Chinese border.

"The next five years, I think, will be the best, and getting better and better" if North-South rapprochement continues, said Jang.

The going rate for a typical three-day, two-night tour ranges from $180 to $600, depending on the type of accommodation and meals, according to our tour guides.

Still, the high-end hotels, saunas with a view of towering peaks, duty-free shopping, mountain hikes and gourmet dining remain carefully calibrated to minimize contact with actual North Koreans.

Transgressions aren't just discouraged, they're actively prohibited. Cameras with long lenses, video camcorders, audio recorders, cell phones and computers aren't allowed at all, and South Korean tour organizers are quick to collect and store these before the heavily armed border is reached.

The resort's North Korean hotel and restaurant workers discourage all but the most general conversations -- although young waitresses, who tend to be petite beauties with heart-shaped mouths, appear happy to burst into cascades of karaoke song lauding the Dear Leader and his endless struggles against Yankee wiles.

Still, the North Koreans take no chances.

Military sentries are stationed along the routes followed by the tightly scheduled tourist convoys. Bright-green fencing separates the "tourist" highways from regular North Korea. Where narrow bike paths and roads cross the tourist route, North Korean soldiers stand guard on either side, day and night, to keep the locals away from the tourists -- and vice versa.

Instead of seeing real North Korean life, visitors get a sanitized version from afar -- blue-clothed workers squatting over sere rice paddies, cow-drawn carts heavy with mounds of hay and produce, goats being herded along pebbled riverbanks, villagers bicycling from one remote outpost to another, wood smoke curling from low-slung huts nestled in deforested hills.

One also sees steam-driven tractors -- and, once, a car -- on the other side of the green fence.

At night at the Mount Kumgang resort, the only lights across the line in the North Korean village where resort workers live appear to come from a multi-storied hostel that houses an acrobatic troupe that performs several times daily for tourists. Tourists may watch their daring leaps and catches, but not how they live.

At the duty-free shop where the saccharine music is a recurring ditty imaginatively titled "Thank you very much" (Pangapsumnida), the sales staff are largely ethnic Koreans from China -- not locals at all.

Once, our tourist convoy of about a dozen buses drove through a small North Korean village on its way to picturesque Samilpo Lake, nestled in the hills just inland from the sea Koreans call the East Sea and Japanese call the Sea of Japan. We passed a colorful billboard threatening death to American invaders and several official-looking buildings, including a blue-doored post office -- but the only adults to be seen were a large work crew just beyond the town, trying to rebuild by hand a section of road apparently flooded in the rains of August and September.

As we got off the bus, I was hastily counseled by our South Korean guide not to take pictures looking back from the lake trail to the village pear orchard -- but it was too late. I'd already snapped a shot.

That night, while enjoying -- but not finishing -- spicy, cold noodles in a pheasant broth, grilled wild boar and pheasant dumplings, it was hard not to think about how, just a decade ago, famine in rural North Korea may have killed millions. The crisis forced the regime to seek rapprochement with the South and with the United States.

These days, crops still are failing. The summer's killer floods swept away both people and as much as half a million acres of topsoil, raising fears of even more hardship to come. The country's health care system is effectively bust, leaving millions without the supplies and equipment needed to ensure proper primary care.

One medical expert said dedicated health care workers die early because of radiation exposure from using hand-held direct fluoroscopy in place of modern X-ray machinery -- a luxury the North often doesn't have.

Yet Stephen Linton, grandson and son of Presbyterian missionaries, who runs the Eugene Bell Foundation active in tuberculosis care in North Korea, says North Koreans are eating better and doing better than in the 1990s -- thanks, ironically, to the same forces that built the Mount Kumgang resort. These include robust South Korean aid and booming rural commerce that owes its vitality to widespread job moonlighting, a steady growth in tourism-related and industrial jobs, border trade with China and more exposure to Westerners and to South Korean culture.

After a whirlwind two-day, one-night trip, our bus parted ways with the tourist convoys and headed south. Instead of the North Korean soldier who had pointed his automatic weapon directly at our bus as it went north, the first South Korean soldier we saw beyond the DMZ was waving.