Letter From North Korea
No Questions? Good. Now Enjoy Your Stay
Tuesday, December 2, 2003
In the surreal world of North Korean tourism, you can feast on local delicacies served by glamorous lady comrades, watch an acrobatics show infused with Stalinist humor and climb a storied mountain covered with plaques and monuments celebrating the totalitarian Kim clan.
But be back indoors by the midnight curfew -- or face fines, questioning by authorities or, well, worse.
This is Mount Kumgang, the fortified tourist compound where the Hermit Kingdom meets the Magic Kingdom, right down to Disneyesque 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 most heavily militarized border in the world.
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 each other 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 back seat to homages erected to the Kims, the only father-and-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.
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 especially appreciated the view is dutifully marked with a six-foot-tall stone tablet. Elsewhere a young guard stood by an etching commemorating the exact location where Kim Jong Sook, mother of the younger Kim, once rested her weary bones.
This is an important landmark, insisted the female guard, who watches over foreign visitors and keeps out unauthorized North Koreans. Her eyes went wide when asked about the need for a monument in a place of such natural beauty.