Ausgabe 11/2006

Tourism in North Korea Hyundai's Holiday Gulag

North Korean wouldn't normally spring to mind as a choice holiday destination. But hundreds of thousands of tourists are flowing into the secretive realm of dictator Kim Jong Il as part of vacations organized by the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai.


South Korean tourists rest on Kumgangsan beach in North Korea.

South Korean tourists rest on Kumgangsan beach in North Korea.

As morning sun rises over North Korea's east coast, it bathes Kumgangsan, the Diamond Mountain region, in a fiery red light. Workers emerge from a barracks in the valley, their bodies bundled up against the bitter cold. The only promise of heat comes from a giant propaganda poster that all workers are forced to pass: "Ten thousand lives for General Kim Jong Il, the sun of the 21st century."

A normal day in the realm of the "Dear Leader" begins with strictly adhered to rules that make little sense to outsiders. All workers are permitted to ride their bicycles up to the barracks gate, where they dismount as if on command. After slowly walking past the guard booth, they then push their bikes for another 200 meters along the road -- which has almost no car traffic. Only then do they hop on and begin peddling again.

This odd ritual can be observed from the Kumgang Hotel, a twelve-storey building built decades ago by the Stalinist founder of North Korea Kim Il Sung as a relaxation center for loyal officials. A propaganda painting in front of the building depicting Kim as a benevolent figure surrounded by a swarm of children serves as a reminder that still has a godlike status despite dying twelve years ago. Officially, the father of the country's current leader Kim Jong Il remains president, even in death.

The Kumgang Hotel at first was neglected by the junior dictator. But now it's been restored to its former glory, renovated from the ground up by South Korean firm Hyundai Asan -- to provide adequate accommodation for hordes of tourists from the capitalist south.

Kumgangsan, which Hyundai manages with the permission of the "Dear Leader," has become an extremely popular travel destination for guests from South Korea. 400,000 tourists will arrive this year alone, one-third more than in 2005, says Hyundai executive Kim Young Hyun. Many visitors hope to get a glimpse of the secretive north, a country which still considers the south the enemy. At the same time, the tourists can experience first-hand how quickly the two Koreas are growing together, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Capitalist enclave in the north

What about the small matter of North Korea's controversial nuclear program? Or the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, because the dictator from the north, desperately in need of hard currency, has allegedly been counterfeiting US currency? Judging by the amount of construction going on in Kumgangsan, global concerns over a potential crisis on the Korean peninsula seem to be falling largely on deaf ears here. Indeed, the renovated hotel is only one of many projects with which Hyundai is transforming the region into a blossoming southern enclave.

Behind a green fence, a crane hoists construction materials onto a site destined for a new building that will carry great political symbolism. When completed next year, the building will house a reunification facility for families torn apart by the 1950-1953 Korean War. And in a nearby valley, another project is underway that seems highly out of place in Kim's gulag-like state: Two Buddhist monks from South Korea are supervising the reconstruction of an historic temple that was destroyed in the war.

Hyundai also has plans to open a golf course in Kumgangsan in September. Until now, the bourgeois sport was seen as the height of decadence in this country of workers and farmers. Of course, the Communist proletariat won't exactly visit the facility for fun. Instead, North Korean employees will be mowing the lawns and collecting golf balls for their affluent brothers and sisters from the south. The capitalist enemy can already enjoy an elegant beach hotel, several restaurants and shopping at the local branch of a South Korean supermarket chain.

At first the Kumgangsan tourists were only permitted to pay in US dollars. However, the bankrupt regime in Pyongyang now also accepts the South Korean won. And hard reality has forced Kim to gradually make the once impassible border along the 38th parallel ever more porous. Hyundai operates a second island of capitalism farther to the west, in the Kaesong special industrial zone, an hour's drive from the South Korean capital, Seoul. In Kaesong, 6,000 low-wage North Korean workers assemble basic products -- clothing, cooking pots and cosmetics containers -- for 16 South Korean companies.

Porous border

But the scene at the Goseon border crossing on the east coast illustrates just how much the government in Seoul is betting on reconciliation with the north. Goseon is the port of entry into the north for tourists headed to Kumgangsan. The new processing building, as big as an airport terminal, is clearly designed for growth. Five lanes are already set up for future car traffic between the north and the south, but only one is currently open -- to accommodate Hyundai's tour buses.

Tour buses carry South Koreans across the DMZ.
Getty Images

Tour buses carry South Koreans across the DMZ.

Although it takes all of 15 minutes for the South Koreans to reach their destination, the demilitarized zone through which the road passes -- with its mines, electric fences and barbed wire -- makes Kumgangsan seem worlds away. Like cautious vehicles navigating an exotic safari, the South Korean busses roll through this no-man's land on a road bordered by a new railway line. Grim-faced North Korean soldiers are stationed every few hundred meters along the railroad embankment to make sure that the busses don't stray from their prescribed route.

Kumgangsan offers the vacationers a chance to relax in a dreamlike landscape, but also to enjoy a forced respite from the high-tech Western world. When they enter the country, their bags are searched for mobile phones, the evil electronic tools the "Dear Leader" has strictly prohibited. Kim's border guards also relieve the tourists of cameras with powerful zoom lenses, devices for which they would probably have little use, since taking pictures from the busses is also forbidden.

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