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One tiny crack in the border

The most beautiful mountain range on the peninsula happens to be in the north. Foreigners can gain access to Mt. Kumgang with a tour.

October 08, 2006|Helen E. Sung | Special to The Times

Mt. Kumgang, North Korea — "WHEN I was in North Korea last year ...," I began, over dim sum one recent Sunday afternoon with a professor friend, a sophisticated Manhattanite.

"You've been to North Korea?" he interrupted. "Anyone can go," I told him. "It's a tour."

While living in Seoul last year, I learned that a division of the South Korean mega-conglomerate Hyundai has been operating tours to Mt. Kumgang from South Korea since 1998. Considered the most beautiful mountain range on the Korean peninsula, Mt. Kumgang has been immortalized for centuries in poetry, art and song.

Before the Mt. Kumgang tour, South Koreans had been unable to travel north of the demilitarized zone -- at least it was legally barred. The DMZ, established in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, sliced Korea in two, leading to the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK, in the north. The 2 1/2 -mile-wide DMZ sealed off the border between the two Koreas. To this day, tensions remain. Just last week, North Korea vowed to go ahead with a nuclear test, to the increasing dismay of world leaders.

But for Americans, to whom North Korea rarely, if ever, grants tourist visas (though it does to other foreigners), the tour offers one way to get inside the Communist country.

"Let's go!" I said to a South Korean photographer friend and colleague after I learned of the tours.

"No way. It's just a tourist trap," he scoffed. "I heard they monitor everything, and you can't go anywhere on your own. It's not like you see the real North Korea or meet any regular North Koreans."

"That's all part of the charm of going to a totalitarian country," I said, trying to persuade him. "Don't you want to see what it's all about?"

In the end, he did. Who wouldn't want to peek inside one of the most politically isolated countries in the world?


Papers in order

TO go on the trip, we filled out simple registration forms and submitted copies of our passports and photographs to the tour agency. A couple of days later, our reservations were confirmed, and we submitted payment in South Korean won, equivalent to about $350 per person for the two-night, three-day trip. (For visa information, contact North Korea's United Nations office, [212] 972-3105.)

On a wintry February morning, we assembled at a meeting point 100 miles northeast of Seoul and received identification cards that we were to wear at all times.

Mobile phones, high-powered camera lenses and South Korean magazines were among the items not allowed into North Korea. The tour included journalists (two Germans and a South Korean), the photographer I was traveling with and about 100 South Korean tourists.

Some of the tourists came to sightsee, but I suspect more came for the opportunity to set foot on northern soil.

We drove through the DMZ -- the idea of it turned out to be more thrilling than the actual act -- escorted by South Korean military. We passed vast dirt fields marked by occasional shrubs, trees and tunnels. Our tour guide warned us not to take any pictures.

At the military demarcation line our tour bus stopped. Two North Korean soldiers boarded. As one soldier stood guard at the front of the bus, the other strolled down the aisle, counting heads as he went. Once the soldiers left the bus, we were allowed to continue.

Whereas the south was highly industrialized and modern, the north looked like the land that time forgot. Civilians were walking, riding bicycles and pushing wheelbarrows. Other than the occasional military truck, there were no vehicles. Tattered pieces of cloth covered cracked and broken windows in abandoned-looking houses with worn roofs and crumbling tiles.

I saw the first of many carvings that marred the smooth surfaces of towering mountains in and around Mt. Kumgang. Etched in large Korean and Chinese characters, the signs touted the leadership of former Chairman Kim Il-Sung and current leader Kim Jong II.

Once at the mountain resort, we lined up to clear immigration. The North Korean official gave my American passport and Korean face a quizzical look. Maybe he had never met a Korean American.

"How safe is the tour?" I asked Young Sil Jung, a Hyundai Asan tour guide.

"It's very safe," she said. "It's like South Korea."

Indeed. It felt more like I was at a South Korean resort -- maybe because I essentially was.

Hyundai Asan had developed a resort consisting of a hotel (a second has since opened), cozy wooden cabins, a hot springs spa and a rest area where frenetic South Korean pop music blared from loudspeakers in the parking lot.

There was a Family Mart (a South Korean chain of convenience stores akin to 7-Eleven). A sprawling shop sold North Korean souvenirs, the most popular being whiskey (purportedly made from snakes) and cigarettes "made in D.P.R.K."

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