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Tourists get only rosy view of N. Korea - or else...

Soldiers stand guard near the country's luxury resorts to keep locals away from foreign visitors, and vice versa.

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Dec 03, 2007

MOUNT KUMGANG RESORT, NORTH KOREA (eTN) - Those unlucky or unwise enough to fumble one of the many rules for foreign tourists in North Korea quickly discover the sinister side of the Dear Leader's version of a mountain getaway.
All it took on a recent visit across the last hostile front line of the Cold War was a tourist who held up his camera and apparently took a picture.

With a yell and a quick swish of his red flag, an excited North Korean soldier came running down the road just north of the Demilitarized Zone, pointing angrily at the offender. Above the scene gleamed the first of many banners lauding the Dear Leader -- North Korean President Kim Jong-il -- and his late father, Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

As the mass of mostly South Korean and Taiwanese tourists wearing brightly colored parkas, new hiking boots and elaborate ID cards scuttled to reboard their buses, the offending man was shoved to the side. A tight-faced North Korean soldier waved a woman who may have been the tourist's wife away. She hurried off, looking worried, to board her bus.

The offender's detention didn't seem to last long -- probably just long enough to erase the digital image -- but the message was heard.

Foreign visitors now flocking to the North's new tourist resorts -- replete with U.S.-style designer sinks, heated floors, German hair dryers and even Smucker's jam with breakfast -- have the right to spend their dollars. But if they try to peer beneath the North Korean regime's surreal attempt to Potemkinize a failing economy and a struggling people, they will be slapped down.

Sometime next year, the total number of foreign visitors to Mount Kumgang -- the most luxurious of the North Korean tourism outposts, a hiking and beach resort in a strikingly beautiful mountain region just across the South Korean border -- is likely to surpass 2 million.

That includes about 2,000 Americans, plus our group of about 20 journalists, editors and radio and television producers who crossed the border recently on a fact-finding trip sponsored by the Gatekeeper Editors' fellowship of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Our two-day stay in the North was a bizarre education in post-Stalinist group control.

Unlike in Cuba, American tourism to North Korea is not prohibited by the U.S. government. U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill, a popular former ambassador to South Korea, calls the dollar impact marginal. South Korean officials insist the trickle-down intrusion of Western values is worth the price of admission.

Still, the North Korean government pockets much of the hard cash the tourism generates -- including millions in "royalties" paid by the South Korean company Hyundai Asan, which runs the resorts.

Hyundai Asan, an arm of one of South Korea's biggest industrial conglomerates, the automaker Hyundai, acknowledges paying the North $466 million in royalty fees since the late 1990s, on top of hundreds of millions in infrastructure investments. The South Korean government also is a major partner in Hyundai Asan's tourism and industrial projects in the North.

Hyundai Asan Senior Vice President Jang Whan-bin, however, says the Mount Kumgang royalty payment is decreasing every year. It's projected at about $12 million this year.

Tourism dipped last year after Pyongyang set off a nuclear test. But this year, it is at a record pace, Jang said, and could rise even more in coming years after Hyundai Asan opens a companion resort at Mount Paektu, North Korea's tallest peak, near the Chinese border.

"The next five years, I think, will be the best, and getting better and better" if North-South rapprochement continues, said Jang.

The going rate for a typical three-day, two-night tour ranges from $180 to $600, depending on the type of accommodation and meals, according to tour guides.

Still, the high-end hotels, saunas with a view of towering peaks, duty-free shopping, mountain hikes and gourmet dining remain carefully calibrated to minimize contact with actual North Koreans.

Transgressions aren't just discouraged, they're actively prohibited. Cameras with long lenses, video camcorders, audio recorders, cell phones and computers aren't allowed at all, and South Korean tour organizers are quick to collect and store these before the heavily armed border is reached.

The resort's North Korean hotel and restaurant workers discourage all but the most general conversations -- although young waitresses, who tend to be petite beauties with heart-shaped mouths, appear happy to burst into cascades of karaoke song lauding the Dear Leader and his endless struggles against Yankee wiles.

Still, the North Koreans take no chances.

Military sentries are stationed along the routes followed by the tightly scheduled tourist convoys. Bright-green fencing separates the "tourist" highways from regular North Korea. Where narrow bike paths and roads cross the tourist route, North Korean soldiers stand guard on either side, day and night, to keep the locals away from the tourists -- and vice versa.

Instead of seeing real North Korean life, visitors get a sanitized version from afar -- blue-clothed workers squatting over sere rice paddies, cow-drawn carts heavy with mounds of hay and produce, goats being herded along pebbled riverbanks, villagers bicycling from one remote outpost to another, wood smoke curling from low-slung huts nestled in deforested hills.

Soldiers stand guard near the country's luxury resorts to keep locals away from foreign visitors, and vice versa.

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