Tours to North Korea to Enjoy Boom

Korea Times
Kim Rahn
12/30/2005

It has been eight years since South Koreans started visiting Mt. Kumgang, a scenic attraction in North Korea on a cruise program organized by Hyundai Asan.

Hopes and doubts about the success of the trips continue, as the tour program is strongly influenced by international and local developments. And many ups and downs have occurred over the past eight years.

The number of visitors plummeted during difficult times such as when a South Korean woman visitor was detained in 1999, when former Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-hun committed suicide in 2003, and when the North cut the quota of daily visitors by 50 percent last year.

Numbers rose when the government subsidized costs for students, the disabled and dispersed families in 2002, and when an overland bus route was developed in 2003.

Despite obstacles, the number of South Korean visitors to the scenic mountain resort passed the million mark last June.

Moreover, the communist country plans to open more tourist attractions to South Korea. Kaesong, the capital of the ancient Koryo Kingdom, Mt. Paektu on the border of North Korea and China, and maybe even the North Korean capital Pyongyang are on a possible list of tourist attractions for South Korean travelers.

Kaesong

At the end of last August, 500 South Korean tourists visited Kaesong, the old capital of the Koryo Kingdom (918 A.D.-B.C.1392), for the first time since the end of Korean War in 1953 on a one-day pilot trip.

It took only about two hours from central Seoul to the North Korean city, just above the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, by bus on an overland route including entry procedures. Its easy access is expected to be one of the attractive features for South Korean travelers.

“Kaesong has lots of attractions from the rich cultural heritage of 500-years of Koryo history,’’ Shin Hee-soo, executive director of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO)’s inter-Korea tourism department, told The Korea Times.

The historic sites include Sonjuk Bridge, where high-ranking Koryo government official Chong Mong-ju was killed by Lee Song-gye, founder of the Choson Kingdom and the Confucian school of Songgyungwan. Parts of the school are now used as a Koryo museum.

Also located here are Kaesong Nasong, a fortress, and the royal mausoleum of King Wanggon, founder of Koryo. Natural resources such as Mt. Songak and Pakyon Falls are also popular.

“Travelers are also able to see North Koreans’ lives, as the tour buses pass Kaesong’s downtown. It will be another attraction, especially to the old people whose hometown was Kaesong,’’ Shin said.

Mt. Paektu

Last July, the KTO, Hyundai, and the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee agreed to allow South Koreans to visit Mt. Paektu on the border of North Korea and China.

The KTO provided about 8,000 tons of asphalt pitch to the North to establish the tourism-based infrastructure on the mountain, including paving the runway of Samjiyon airport near the mountain.

The tour operators planned to conduct a pilot tour last year, but it was delayed until next April or May due to the dispute between the North and Hyundai over the dismissal of former Hyundai vice chairman Kim Yoon-kyu.

Last month, 15 delegates from the South inspected the repair work at Samjiyon airport.

The mountain is breathtakingly beautiful, comparable to the beauty of Mt. Kumgang. Some 20 peaks higher than 2,500 meters surround “Chonji,’’ the mountain-top crater lake.

Sunrise seen from the top, especially in August and September, is one of the must-sees of the trip to Mt. Paektu. Some 200 square meters of hot springs never freeze, even during winter.

“Mt. Paektu is more than a tourist attraction. It has a special meaning of the `spirit of Koreans.’ Many people have visited the mountain from the Chinese side, but the scene from the North’s side gives a different impression,’’ Shin said.

Pyongyang

The North Korean capital may not be opened as a separate tourist attraction but is likely to be visited if the tour program for Mt. Paektu includes Pyongyang as a stopover, a Hyundai Asan worker said.

In October last year, about 140 South Koreans visited Pyongyang on a pilot trip. The city has many historic sites from the ancient Koguryo Kingdom and Tangun, the legendary founding father of Korea.

Their visit was, however, mainly focused on Mt. Myohyang near the capital, which is famous for autumn foliage.

Shin pointed out that the reclusive regime is not likely to open its capital wide to South Koreans, adding that visits may be made in the case of big events, such as the “Arirang’’ mass games which were held last year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party.

Obstacles to Trip to North Korea

The trip to the North has obstacles to overcome. The tours mainly target people whose homes were in North Korea or whose family members are still there.

But the numbers of such people are limited. The tours need other kinds of visitors to be successful. Besides the attraction of entering a `forbidden’ land, North Korea lacks features of interest to visitors.

A survey showed that 95 percent of the travelers to Mt. Kumgang were traveling there for the first time, indicating the small number of returning visitors. “Establishing golf courses and opening a beach at Mt. Kumgang are part of the efforts to increase repeat tourists,’’ Shin said.

Restrictions by North Korea also dampen the enjoyment of South Korean visitors, Shin pointed out. Visitors’ activities are strictly regulated, and the trips are limited to special times and places.

The trips to the North require harmony between the two governments, the people’s support, and a sense of duty as a “plus alpha’’ factor, he stressed.

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