Submit Press release  eTN Team ·  Advertising  ·  eTN Awards  - Worldtourism Events    

South Korea

North Korean leader's former home open to tourists

AP  Dec 21, 2008

HWAJINPO BEACH, South Korea — This small stone villa perched among fragrant pine trees is about as close as most people can get to North Korea, in more than one way. It is only a few miles away from the border, and it was the childhood home of the boy who grew up to become the leader of the North.

Kim Jong Il was 6 years old when his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, took ownership of the house known as "The Castle" near scenic Hwajinpo Beach. When the Korean War ended in 1953, the border between the Koreas was redrawn, and the villa wound up in the South.

Today, the villa is a tourist site, and South Korea is planning to expand tourism on its side of the border. The South Korean government has encouraged tour operators to dream up projects such as ecological parks showing off the rare wildlife flourishing in the demilitarized zone, a 2.5-mile-wide buffer between the Koreas. A sprawling $34 million Korean War museum just north of Kim's former villa is scheduled to open in March. Elsewhere, tourists can peer at North Korea through telescopes.

South Korea's attempts at tourism may become the only chance to glimpse the secretive neighbor to the North. On Dec. 1, North Korea suspended the only remaining tours to its country, visits to the historic city of Kaesong. Earlier this year, tours to the North's scenic Diamond Mountain were suspended after a North Korean soldier fatally shot a South Korean woman visiting the resort.

Tensions between the Koreas are at a high since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's election in February and pledge to get tough on the North. The demilitarized zone is studded with land mines and surrounded by barbed wire, and the Koreas remain technically at war.

Some 800 tourists visit the former Kim home every day. Reopened after a refurbishment three years ago, the villa displays photos of Kim Il Sung and documents chronicling his life and modern Korean history.

Not all the tourists are peaceful. Visitors scratched out Kim Jong Il's face from a childhood photo, and activists threatened to blow up the building to protest against his bid to build nuclear bombs.

One tourist shook his head in disgust at the photos documenting a war that claimed millions of lives and left the Korean peninsula split in the middle.

"I can't understand why we should retain this villa," said Jo Dong-hui, an 80-year-old Korean War veteran from the town of Gimpo, west of Seoul. "I'm seeing many old pictures of Kim Il Sung, and that reminds me of the Korean War. I barely escaped death many times back then."

Museum officials say their aim is not to glorify Kim Il Sung but to educate tourists about Korea's complicated modern history.

"Some students don't even know who started the Korean War," said Jeon Sun-bok, a 62-year-old museum lecturer who lost both of her parents during the war. "I want to tell people about the war's painful memories and explain that such a tragedy should not take place again."

Designed by a German architect and built in 1937, the two-story house with its turreted roof sits halfway up a hill, with a bird's eye view of the sea below. It first served as a vacation home for foreign missionaries.

Kim Il Sung took over the building after Korea won independence from Japan in 1945 and used it for vacations. Photos from the late 1940s show a chubby-faced Kim Jong Il seated on the steps outside the villa with Korean friends and a Soviet playmate.

In 1950, just a couple of years after that photo was taken, his father's army launched a surprise attack on South Korea. The attack ignited the Korean War, which ended three years later in a stalemate.

For decades, South Korea's military used the villa as a summer house. In 1999, under a government seeking to reconcile with the North, officials restored the house and opened it to the public.

In 2000, then South Korean Culture Minister Park Jie-won visited North Korea and Kim Jong Il. Park handed Kim an album of photos from his father's villa.

"He first pretended not to recognize it," said Park, now an opposition lawmaker. "But he later spoke to me about playing there as a child."

North Korean leader's former home open to tourists
Image via AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Premium Partners