Expanding North Korean Tourism

Korea Times

Following Pyongyang’s scheduled return to the nuclear talks, the agreement to expand tourism is welcome news from the North. If the latest changes in the North Korean positions are genuine, they could turn tension into peace on the Korean Peninsula. Much of the credit should go to the Hyundai Group’s untiring efforts and the isolationist country’s bold turnaround toward an open-door policy. At stake is how to keep this momentum for peace and prosperity rolling despite challenges from within and without.

The agreement between North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and visiting Hyundai officials signals the start of full-blown tourism in the North. Next month, South Koreans will be able to climb Mt. Paektu, the nation’s spiritual headspring, from the North Korean side. They will also be able to explore in an hour’s drive from Seoul the rich cultural heritage of Kaesong, old capital of Koryo Dynasty (A.D. 918-1392) from which the country’s name originates. Mt. Kumgang will also open its inner sceneries to southerners.

This “triangular tourism project” will sharply improve the North’s tattered economy. North Korea’s real GDP increased 2.2 percent last year, but that in the accommodation-catering sector jumped 16.3 percent, thanks largely to the Mt. Kumgang tourism business. As South Koreans fly directly to Mt. Paektu or reach the mountain via Pyongyang, the tourists’ dollars will not go to China but to North Korea. The two Koreas also can build a world-class resort belt along the eastern coast starting from Mt. Sorak.

Hyundai will have to make massive investments to expand airports and develop other infrastructure. Although the group has won the exclusive development rights, it is not certain whether it alone can meet all the costs and ensure the project’s commercial viability. North Korea in this regard should refrain from asking excessive charges, as was the case in the Mt. Kumgang project. Nor should there be any recurrence of controversies stemming from under-the-table payments and other murky deals.

Both sides need to take a long-term approach. Just as Mt. Kumgang tourism helped to prevent an escalation of hostilities during naval battles in the West Sea, so can expanded tourism contribute to the establishment of a lasting peace on this peninsula. Therefore, its success depends on finding the equilibrium between peace and commercial dividends. A prerequisite for this balance is genuine trust between the two Koreas, a trust that cannot be shaken by internal splits or changes in external circumstances.

For North Korea, all these inter-Korean projects will help to ensure its security and economic development. As everyone knows, however, what Pyongyang really needs are more brisk economic transactions with the international community after being cleared of nuclear suspicion. And this is why it should show sincerity at the regional disarmament talks next week.


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