In the surreal world of North Korean tourism, you can feast on local delicacies served by lady comrades, watch an acrobatics show infused with Stalinist humor and climb a storied...
MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea In the surreal world of North Korean tourism, you can feast on local delicacies served by lady comrades, watch an acrobatics show infused with Stalinist humor and climb a storied mountain covered with monuments celebrating the totalitarian Kim clan.
But be back indoors by the midnight curfew or face fines, questioning by authorities or, well, worse.
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This is Mount Kumgang, the fortified tourist compound where the Hermit Kingdom meets the Magic Kingdom, right down to Disney-esque 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 world’s most heavily militarized border.
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 one another 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.”
On this mountain, about which the famous Chinese Sang Dynasty poet Sudongpo wrote, “I would have no regrets in my lifetime were I to see Mount Kumgang just once,” the jagged cliffs and glistening waterfalls now take a backseat to homages erected to the Kims, the only father-son act in Stalinist history.
More than half a century ago, Kim Il Sung founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea i.e., North Korea. His son, Kim Jong Il, took the helm following the elder Kim’s death in 1994. The son is said to have entered this world on a mountaintop, his birth heralded by lightning bolts and a double rainbow. Recently named “Guardian of Our Planet” by the North Koreans, Kim Jong Il rules through a cult of personality that is alive and well in Mount Kumgang (also known as Diamond Mountain).
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 appreciated the view is marked with a 6-foot stone tablet.
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.
But two restaurants do employ local staff, and it’s there that foreigners have their best chance to interact with unarmed North Koreans. Waitresses wear ’50s-style heavy makeup and modest attire. One nervous server fled from a table of foreigners every time she was asked a question. In another restaurant, a waitress looked stunned after a foreigner asked where one could buy a Kim Il Sung lapel pin like hers.
She tilted her powdered face skyward, raising one arm to gently cup the pin with her hand.
“This,” she proclaimed, “is not fashion. It cannot be bought in a store.” She went on, “This is a symbol of my love for the great founder of my nation.”
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.
Photos here are limited to shots of the tourist installations and specified views of Mount Kumgang itself. And visitors are told not to talk to the locals about politics or economics. Two years ago, a 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.