Wed, Jul 28, 2004 - Page 16 News List

N Korea puts itself on the tourist trail

The hermit-like kingdom is opening up, albeit gradually, to outside influences

REUTERS , Mount Kumgang, North Korea

South Korean tourists take a nap on Kumgangsan Beach in Kosung, North Korea. The beach opened two years ago and is part of an inter-Korean cooperative project aiming to expand tourism.

PHOTO: AP

No cameras with too powerful a lens. No mobile phones. And certainly no criticism of the economy or politics.

These are just some of the ground rules for tourists visiting North Korea, probably the most secretive and highly controlled country in the world.

South Korea's Hyundai Asan company started running cruises six years ago to scenic Mount Kumgang, just across the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas, after the area was designated a special tourism zone by the communist North.

Although around 700,000 people have been herded though Kumgang since tours opened, things haven't always been smooth.

In 1999, a South Korean woman was detained for about a week after suggesting a North Korean guide should come and stay in the South because living standards were better. That caused a two-week suspension of the tours, before the situation was resolved under pressure from Seoul.

"It is very difficult running tourism in North Korea but it must be appreciated that this project marks the beginning of something much bigger between the two Koreas," said Kim Yoon-kyu, chief executive of Hyundai Asan, at the recent opening of the refurbished 167-room Hotel Kumgangsan.

Kim was referring to the belief of many in the South that business cooperation is a key way to resolve political tensions.

The tours have also at times fallen victim to flare-ups in ties between the two Koreas, which remain technically at war after the 1950 to 1953 Korean War ended with only a truce.

And tensions have been exacerbated by the fact that the capitalist South was estimated to have a per-capita income 16 times bigger than the North's US$818 by last year.

Economic ties between the two Koreas have increased over the past few years, but diplomatic relations remain thorny and sporadic naval skirmishes still occur along a disputed maritime border in the Yellow Sea.

A crisis over the North's nuclear weapons programs has further strained Pyongyang's ties with neighbors and Washington, which has labeled the country part of an "axis of evil."

The first cruise ships bringing tourists from the South to Kumgang were initially confronted by North Korean navy vessels unsure of who had the right of way.

Company officials and South Korean journalists familiar with the area say the atmosphere for travelers to Kumgang has become more relaxed after early problems.

A guide issued to tourists going to Mount Kumgang lists a range of forbidden items including binoculars of more than 10 times magnification, cameras with a lens longer than 160mm and video recorders with an optical zoom of 24 times or more.

Mobile phones are also banned.

Tours to Kumgang have recently started going by land via a road opened last year through the Demilitarized Zone, the world's last Cold War frontier.

Once in the North, the roads taken by the tours are generally fenced off from distant villages with photography forbidden and soldiers dotted every few hundred metres, part of the vast million-man army that dominates the tightly controlled North.

It is also advised not to drink too much while trekking on the leafy trails that wind through Kumgang, given you are only supposed to use public toilets, which can cost a hefty US$4 a time.

Foreigners who have spent time living in the capital Pyongyang say authorities routinely monitor their movements.

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