ONJUNG-RI, North Korea (eTN) – Cellphones? Nope. Tape recorders, newspapers, or magazines? Not a chance, our tour guide declared as he confiscated our “contraband” in the minutes before our bus arrived at the North Korean border, depositing the items in a plastic bag for safekeeping.
It was a stark reminder of the barriers that the secretive communist state firmly maintains even as it takes tentative steps toward connecting with the outside world.
Our destination, the Mount Kumgang resort on North Korea’s remote southeastern coast, is a schizophrenic vacation spot if ever there was one.
Here tourists stroll among restaurants and gift shops, and gaze out at Yosemite-like vistas. But take so much as a single photograph of a North Korean field, village or dirt pathway on the other side of a never-ending bright green fence and goodness knows what will happen when the omnipresent North Korean soldiers respond.
Despite its unorthodox manner of welcoming guests, the North Korean resort, operated by the South Korea-based Hyundai Asan company, has had more than 1.7 million visitors since opening a decade ago.
Only about 2,000 of those guests have been from the United States, Hyundai Asan executives say, including our group of a dozen media editors traveling on the Korean peninsula for a recent journalism fellowship program.
It didn’t take long for two things to become abundantly clear: First, although the impoverished North Korean government appears willing to open its doors slightly to earn much-needed hard currency, it’s willing to do so only on its own terms. Second, despite a history of vituperative rhetoric, North Korea up-close in some ways can prove surprisingly restrained on the propaganda front.
Other than the slogans hailing rulers Kim Jong Il and his late father, Kim Il Sung, carved into the boulders high above the resort, there is virtually no political proselytizing at Mount Kumgang.
I saw only one large billboard painting of the late Great Leader and the Dear Leader in the entire resort. And while there was no Bible in our hotel rooms, neither was there a book praising Kim Jong Il. Moreover, there were no political tchotchkes or Kim Jong Il fashions for sale at the souvenir shops, leaving kitsch-cravers to settle for such fare as Mount Kumgang snow globes, “Brain-Function Activator” walnut powder or Hangover Chaser tea, each $5.
On the morning we began our visit, we met our Hyundai Asan tour guide at a South Korean bus station a few miles from the border. His main job appeared to be to scoop up any possession that he said otherwise would be seized (and never returned) by North Korean authorities.
“How about this news clip about South Korean government corruption?” I asked.
Nice try, but no dice.
The border checkpoint was crowded but orderly – as long as you waited in line, as demanded, in alphabetical order. An “It’s a Small World”-type North Korean anthem called “Nice to Meet You” blared from a loudspeaker, and after our visas were scrutinized by glum-looking officers, we were welcomed to the workers’ paradise by a Disney-like character in a bear suit. (No pictures were allowed of the waving bear. He, of course, was on North Korean government property.)
more stories like thisOn the 10-mile drive to the resort village, armed soldiers stared warily as they stood sentry behind the ubiquitous green fence separating us from the local populace.
But the land beyond told quite a story. Farmers worked the fields by hand. There were virtually no motorized vehicles along the flat dirt roadways. The scene was like something out of a junior high geography textbook of the 1950s – a black-and-white-style “natives at work” pictorial.
Our high-rise hotel, the Oekumgang, loomed large over a domed arena where a North Korean acrobatic troupe performs daily. The rooms were comfortable and even included Western-style mini-bars. The overall environs had the feel of Laughlin, Nev., by way of Soviet-era Moscow.
During our one-night stay, our itinerary included nature jaunts to Samilpo Lake and the rugged Mount Kumgang range, lovely spots that might have seemed serene if we hadn’t been herded there with two dozen more busloads of tourists in a military-escorted convoy. There’s just something less than relaxing about marching up a mountain in lock-step with 800 hearty hikers.
Despite our curiosity, few opportunities arose for interaction with the locals.
In the resort village, where we could walk around freely as long as we didn’t go on the other side of the green fence, there was one intersection where the fence opened wide. But two serious-looking soldiers made sure that ordinary North Koreans did not pass through at the same time as tourists headed toward a state-of-the-art spa.
As we crossed, two young North Korean boys, each probably about 10, stared at us with what seemed like a mixture of curiosity and sadness.
It was hard to imagine what they were thinking, growing up in a land where food is scarce and Westerners have been viewed as devils, as they watched us being pampered with their government’s approval at a resort they were not allowed to enter.
The few North Koreans who actually work at Mount Kumgang are mostly young waitresses who sport red dresses and tiny Kim Il Sung lapel pins, and serve pheasant dumplings, wild boar, kimchi, and cold buckwheat noodles.
The waitresses were clearly hesitant to discuss anything more than the food. Several did, however, pick up karaoke microphones and expressively perform what seemed to be heartfelt tributes to Kim Jong Il.
In one song, our cocktail waitress promised to walk on snow so the Dear Leader could keep his feet dry. Another tune contained the refrain, “General, general, please be well. That is our only hope.”
Looking for something a little offbeat, our interpreter requested the most anti-American song available. I scribbled notes as I heard him report the waitress warbling, “We will stand fast against the pigs.”
At last, I thought, the air of restraint that seemed to permeate the resort had faded. But as I read back my notes, the interpreter seemed surprised.
“She said ‘peaks,’ ” he explained. “Not ‘pigs.’ ”