Mount Paektu pilgrimage packages for 2008

Joong Ang Daily
Ser Myo Ja

Seo Myeong-hee has traveled the world to see the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canyon in the United States, but she said her visit to Chonji, the crater lake on the peak of Mount Paektu, was the best trip of her life.

“It was a beautiful sunny day in May last year. I was just taken away by the magnificent view,” Seo, 57, recalled of her visit to the mountain that straddles the border between China and North Korea. “After walking along the ridge for about three hours, we were there. The lake was a mysterious blue, and there were wildflowers everywhere.”

Standing 2,744 meters (9,002 feet) tall, Mount Paektu has been worshipped for centuries as the place of Korea’s ancestral origins. In addition to its beauty, it is this rich cultural tradition that prompted Seo, like many South Koreans, to travel through China to see the mountain, since there is currently no way to visit the area via North Korea. “It was a five-day trip, but mostly we spent time in Chinese towns seeing ancient ruins of the Goguryeo Kingdom and other tourist attractions,” she said. “The highlight was definitely Mount Paektu, but you have to sit on the bus for many painful hours to actually get there.”

All that, though, is about to change. Last month’s inter-Korean summit finally opened the door for South Koreans to fly directly to the mountain. It promises to be a popular destination once the infrastructure is complete.

In 2005, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il promised Hyundai Asan Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun during a visit to Pyongyang that he would allow a tour program for Mount Paektu. Nothing was done for more than two years, however, until the October summit between Kim and President Roh Moo-hyun resulted in a deal to allow passengers to fly from Seoul to an airport on the mountain.

With cooperation from the Korea National Tourism Organization, Hyundai Group’s North Korea business arm, Hyundai Asan, has begun preparations in cooperation with North Korea’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, which handles civilian inter-Korean projects.

Hyundai Asan, which has the sole franchise to operate tours to the North from South Korea, plans to begin offering tours to Mount Paektu in May 2008. The only other tour program from the South allows visitors to travel to Hyundai’s resort at Mount Kumgang, a project that began in 1998. A South Korean team including officials from the KNTO, the Roh administration and Hyundai will make an on-site survey of Mount Paektu before the end of this month.

Yoon Man-joon, president of Hyundai Asan, told the JoongAng Daily in an interview Thursday that he is extremely optimistic about the tour project. Yoon and Hyun visited the mountain personally early this month.

“The Mount Kumgang tour had more of a symbolic meaning, because it was the first opportunity for South Koreans to go to North Korea for tourism,” Yoon said. “Mount Paektu, however, has much more potential to succeed solely as a tour program.”

Yoon thinks demand will be high and response immediate once the tours begin. “Mount Kumgang is praised for its scenic beauty, but Mount Paektu is more than that,” Yoon said. “The place is the origin of all Koreans, and it is an extraordinary experience for us to visit there.”

Seo could not agree more. “When I saw Chonji, the crater lake, I became so emotional that I almost cried,” she said. “The lyrics of our national anthem even begin with the mountain ― ‘Until the East Sea’s waves are dry, and Mount Paektu is worn away, God watch o’er our land forever!’”

The mountain has long been considered sacred. In Korea’s creation myth, Hwanung, a son of the Lord of Heaven, was allowed to descend onto Mount Paektu with 3,000 followers and found the City of God.

There a tiger and a bear told Hwanung that they dreamed of becoming human, and Hwanung gave them 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort, ordering them to eat only those foods and remain out of the sunlight for 100 days. The tiger failed, but the bear endured and eventually was transformed into a woman.

The bear-woman then prayed for a child, and Hwanung took her for his wife. A son, Dangun, was born, and he built the walled city of Pyongyang and called his kingdom Joseon. Not to be confused with the Joseon Dynasty, the kingdom is referred to in Korean history as Gojoseon or Ancient Joseon. Historians believe his kingdom began in 2,333 B.C.

This mythology is still marked on the modern Korean calendar, with Oct. 3 celebrated as Gaecheonjeol, or National Foundation Day, which marks the establishment of the first Korean kingdom.

The opening of Mount Paektu is not without controversy. Other travel agencies have expressed their displeasure with Hyundai Asan’s monopoly on tours to the famous mountain. On Nov. 13, Shim Joong-mok, the president of the Korea Tourism Association, held a press conference and said the group wants a share of the potentially lucrative market. He said the association, which represents more than 20,000 travel agencies in Korea, may take legal action if their request is not met.

Hyundai Asan President Yoon rebuffed the demand. “The agreement we have with North Korea for exclusive rights to Mount Paektu tourism is a legitimate commercial deal,” Yoon said. “They act as if we received this right for free, but we have made vast investments in North Korea over the past nine years and earned the North Korean authorities’ trust. The tour program was given in return.”

Yoon said the tourism industry should respect market principles. “It would be the same for any other beautiful mountain. Would it make sense for me to develop a resort under an exclusive contract and then have other travel agents demand that they also want to do business there?” Yoon asked. “The travel agents’ demand is unreasonable.”

According to a Hyundai Research Institute report, it will cost up to $1.26 billion to develop a resort on the mountain comparable to the facilities in Pyeongchang, the South Korean city that hopes one day to host the Winter Olympics.

Yoon said he is confident about the Paektu program’s potential, citing his recent visit to the mountain. “There are two lodging facilities built by North Korea on the mountain. One is Sobaeksu State Guest House and the other is Baegyebong Hotel. Both are modern, and they will be usable after some modifications,” Yoon said.

He said the survey team, which will leave before the end of this month, will also study what work is needed for Samjiyon Airport on Mount Paektu to begin receiving flights from South Korea. “We will have a better idea after surveying the runway and traffic tower,” he said, adding that Korean Air and Asiana have both expressed interest in flying to North Korea.

The modernization of the airport may also be expensive. The Ministry of Construction and Transportation said in a report last month that repairs will cost 280 billion won ($304 million).

The price of the tour program is also still to be decided. “It will be competitive with tour programs via China,” Yoon said. “We don’t want to make it too expensive or too cheap.”

Seo said she paid 1.2 million won for her five-day package to visit the mountain via China. “I didn’t think it was too expensive,” Seo said. “If I can fly to the mountain in just two hours at a similar cost, I will be more than willing to go one more time.”

Running a tour program for Mount Paektu is also tricky because there are only few weeks in the year when Chonji Lake can be seen in good weather. “I was happy because the May weather was fantastic,” Seo remembered. “The tour guide said we were lucky because many groups could not see the magnificent view due to the weather.”

According to Yoon, Hyundai Asan is reviewing other plans to use the mountain’s winter weather as a possible attraction for sports and hot springs.

The new tour may take away one small attraction of the Chinese route ― a chance to see the low-key North Korean border with China. “The border is not heavily guarded,” Seo said. “Our guide even allowed us to cross the border on foot. The North Korean guard smiled at us, and we took a souvenir photo together. I gave him a chocolate, and he was really thrilled.”


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