North Korea is peeling back its self-imposed veil of isolation, allowing tourists a rare glimpse of the hardscrabble rural life en route to a new hiking trail that opened this month at the South Korean-run Diamond Mountain resort.
The new trail is also aimed at drumming up more business for the tourism venture run by a subsidiary of South Korea’s Hyundai conglomerate, which saw a plunge in visitors last year after North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests. And drawing more tourists will mean more money for the communist nation’s impoverished economy.
The Diamond Mountain tourism project began in 1998 and has drawn 1.5 million guests as the only part of North Korea that can be easily visited by foreign tourists. The mountain is located just north of the border between the two Koreas near the east coast.
It’s one of two landmark projects — the other is a joint North-South industrial zone in the North Korean border town of Kaesong — that are hailed as models for reunification.
The new tour brings visitors to a part of the mountain previously off-limits to outsiders: inner Diamond Mountain, which features gentle waterfalls and Buddhas carved in stone.
But the highlight of the trip is a two-hour drive each way around the mountain to get to the trailhead through villages nestled in valleys displaying a panorama of North Korean daily life under leader Kim Jong Il.
Oxen pull plows
Crossing through a tunnel to start the journey, a military outpost greets travelers with a slogan proclaiming, “We will fight forever for Kim Jong Il.”
Paved roads give way to dirt, rolling through a countryside where the tour buses are the only vehicles as far as the eye can see. Bicycles are the only form of transportation that North Korean families can afford.
They wade through rice paddies to plant seedlings, while oxen pull plows through the mud for other crops, such as corn and beans.
Terraced fields also stretch across hillsides, an attempt to squeeze every inch of food out of the earth in a country where famine is believed to have killed as many as 2 million people starting in the 1990s.
Workers at collective farms erect red flags as a sign of devotion to Kim and his late father, founding leader Kim Il Sung. Children play in a schoolyard wearing the red kerchiefs of the youth wing of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.
Fresh construction on homes and buildings is a sign of development, although the structures are made of simple clay bricks.
South Korean visitors wave from the bus, but no North Koreans respond to the first outsiders they are seeing in more than a half-century. A group of children scurry behind a wall and other people squat in the dirt, backs to the road. At nearly every intersection, soldiers armed with pistols clutch small red flags, ready to signal an alarm if anything goes awry.
Those on the tour are given no opportunity to speak to ordinary North Koreans in the rural hamlets.
Kim Jeong-ho, president of the Gangwon Development Research Institute, who was leading a delegation of experts on the tour, said the villages reminded him of South Korean rural life in the 1950s and 1960s.
‘Sort of primitive’
“The way they farm is sort of primitive, they will always have shortages of food,” said Kim Suk-choong, an agricultural economy researcher at the institute.
Although the scenes appear genuine, there’s still a Potemkin Village feeling that confronts visitors to North Korea. All curtains are drawn at a row of squat apartment blocks next to the road, with every window featuring the same artificial red flowers.
North Korean guides gush with minutiae about the mountain, but they are hesitant to discuss village life. Taking photos from moving vehicles is banned.
“It’s important to create a sense of unity between the two Koreas,” Pak Un Ju, a North Korean guide, said of the new tour. “Everybody is entitled to enjoy this mountain, whether South Korean or North Korean.”
The North Koreans were also upbeat about last month’s tests of restored railways between the Koreas, including a line heading to the resort. Tourists initially were only allowed to travel here by ship, but have arrived at Diamond Mountain via reconnected roads since 2003.
“They took the ships first, then they came by road and next will be trains,” said Um Yong Sil, another North Korean guide. She also displayed knowledge of U.S. geography, asking an American journalist how Diamond Mountain compared to the Grand Canyon.
The new openness is an indication of the apparent ease North Korea has over the project and realization that it will not rattle the country’s regime, said resort manager Yoo Da-jong.
The project has also meant about $1.6 billion in investment in the North by South Korea’s Hyundai Asan.
Some 1,000 North Koreans work at the resort, receiving a $50 monthly salary and another $7.50 in social costs paid directly to the North. North Korea also receives about $300 in fees from each visitor.
But profits have been elusive for Hyundai and last year only 280,000 visitors came, short of an expected 400,000. Part of the decline was caused by an end to tour subsidies from the South Korean government after North Korea’s Oct. 9 nuclear test.
Other attractions to lure tourists include a new concert series, with the premiere event this month featuring Nam Jin, known as South Korea’s Elvis Presley. The resort is expanding its duty-free stores, offering such items as an $18,600 Rolex watch — worth nearly 27 years salary for a North Korean worker.
Resort operators hope tourists will ignore the political stalemate and come to experience a taste of a future, undivided Korea.
“This area is for reunification and for natural beauty,” Yoo said. “If you get rid of the political things from your mind, then you can appreciate all these good things.”