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Hope and despair at North Korean resort

Diamond Mountain resort is the only place where average South Koreans can glimpse life across the Demilitarized Zone and interact with North Koreans. It radiates hope and despair for both sides.
A North Korean music group entertains a crowd of South Korean tourists at the Diamond Mountain resort in September.
A North Korean music group entertains a crowd of South Korean tourists at the Diamond Mountain resort in September. Burt Herman / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

DIAMOND MOUNTAIN, North Korea — North Korean acrobats scamper up poles and flip through the air to the delight of South Korean tourists filling the arena. At the end, the spectacular performers unfurl a banner that reads “One” and has a picture of a unified Korean Peninsula.

This resort is the only place where average South Koreans can glimpse life across the Demilitarized Zone and interact with North Koreans — albeit carefully chosen ones. It radiates the hopes for reunification that both Koreas ardently seek, but it also reveals the despair on both sides.

The hope shows in the levity between visitors and North Korean guides and agents who roam what is considered the most beautiful mountain on the peninsula.

But there is despair as South Koreans cross the heavily fortified border to visit what should not be another country, the only other place that shares the Korean language and traditions whose roots run deeper than the division of the peninsula after World War II at the hands of outside forces.

'Gates for reconciliation'
Hope was embodied in the idea of the Diamond Mountain resort, a project built by a subsidiary of South Korea’s Hyundai conglomerate that has sucked up hundreds of millions of dollars and hasn’t made a profit even after hosting more than 1.1 million visitors.

Recently, its prospects got worse when North Korea halved the number of visitors it will allow from the South to 600 a day, in apparent anger over the demotion of Hyundai’s liaison executive with the North after he was accused of corruption.

Still, construction continues at the resort, with two golf courses in progress and plans for new hotels. Workers are laying tracks for a railroad to bring visitors across the DMZ to Diamond Mountain.

“Making money is a second object,” said Byun Ha-jung, senior manager of international finance for Hyundai Asan. “We want to open gates for reconciliation.”

Byun has been trying to attract foreign investors, such as the Hilton and Hyatt hotel chains. But he acknowledges it is a tough sell given the difficulties of operating in North Korea, where business always carries a political undertone.

Still, South Korean government officials feel relations have taken a turn for the better with the North’s agreement at international arms talks in September to dismantle all its nuclear programs.

Kim Chang-ho, head of the South’s Government Information Agency, said the accord was just the “end of a beginning” on resolving the issue. “Relations between the two Koreas are ready for another leap forward,” he said.

The warming relations are evident in the more relaxed interactions between South and North Koreans at Diamond Mountain, which is open to all foreigners.

Bantering, watching the tourists
At the top of one twisting path alongside a lake, South Korean tourists urge a North Korean guide to serenade them with a song. Plainclothes North Korean agents claiming to be environmental protection officers but obviously keeping an eye more on the visitors than on nature, engage in light banter, sometimes turning to politics.

They, too, are hopeful about reunification. “Diamond Mountain is one of the best ways to prepare national unification,” said Lim Kang Chol, 31.

But visits can also bring distress.

“Painful” is the word Kim Hak-young uses to describe what he felt when crossing the border for his vacation at Diamond Mountain.

Kim, a 71-year-old retiree from Seoul, capital of an economically strong South Korea, marveled at the resort’s scenery. But the sights of regular North Korean houses and their residents are a reminder of the sad reality of an impoverished brother nation that has had to rely on international food handouts to survive.

“They could live much better if we were one nation,” Kim said.

Poverty just beyond the fence
Diamond Mountain is shut off from the real North Korea by rows of green fences lining the smooth roads reserved for tourist buses, patrolled by North Korean soldiers wielding red flags to raise the alarm if anything unusual should happen. Buses travel in convoys at set times to set destinations, with tourists all making their mountain hikes together in lines of hundreds.

Beyond the fences, rundown buildings appear half-finished and abandoned, but clotheslines hanging outside betray the presence of residents. North Koreans gather in fields to harvest corn and cabbage, some privileged enough to have bicycles for transport.

Hyundai officials insist residents in the surrounding area benefit from the resort. They say, for example, that one of the resort’s hotels provides jobs for some 300 people in neighboring Onjeong village, which has about 2,000 families.

Song Kwang Chol, 43, a North Korean guard, refused to directly answer what he thought of the crowds of well-fed South Koreans arriving in stylish hiking outfits and carrying the latest digital cameras.

“We understand they are tourists. They come here to eat well and have a good time,” he said.