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N.Korea Mountain Tour Popular In S.Korea

Mount Kumgang

Kosong, North Korea (UPI) Oct 03, 2005
Han In-kyu, a 70-year-old resident of Seoul, and his family had to wait for more than a month to get tickets for popular tours to North Korea's scenic Mount Kumgang.

"I am happy that I could join the tours of Mount Kumgang. Some of my friends who failed to buy tickets have to wait until November to visit here," he said when he passed the North Korean Customs, Immigrations and Quarantine office after his three-day tour.

"Mount Kumgang was really fantastic. I hope to travel to Mount Kumgang here again before death," he said.

Han was among some 600 South Koreans who joined the three-day tour programs that included mountain climbing and watching circus and song performances in the resort complex.

"All programs were sold out for October and early November," said Kwon Sung-woo, a manager in Hyundai Asan Corp that operates the tours.

When Hyundai Asan launched the tour business in North Korea in 1998, many thought it was doomed to fail because of the intense Cold-War rivalry between the two Koreas that remain in a state of technical war since their armed conflict ended in an armistice in 1953.

Hyundai Asan Corp. has long suffered from financial woes due to the money-losing tour program to North Korea's east coast mountain resort because of a lack of tourists and missile and nuclear tensions.

South Korean tourists were reluctant to travel to the North due largely to fear of possible detention and high cruise tour costs and long travel time.

Months after the landmark tour kicked off, a middle-aged South Korean woman was detained for six days after she suggested to a North Korean guard that she should come to the South and live a better life. The incident caused the tour project to be suspended for 45 days.

Sharp-eyed military troops stood at every corner, carrying a red flag that they raised high whenever they saw a tourist taking pictures or moving out of the group. North Korea's "environment rangers" stationed along the mountain paths were tense and on the look out for any breach of tour regulations.

Fines were strictly handed out for smoking in non-smoking areas, taking pictures through the windows of the tour bus and introducing contraband materials including high-zoom cameras and mobile phones.

The tour was suspended in 2003 for fear of the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, which devastated the world's aviation and tourism industries.

Still worse, the project has also been attacked by South Korean conservatives who say it funnels hard currency to the North, which could divert tourist dollars for military use. Hyundai paid North Korea $480 million in royalties to operate the tours.

In addition, Hyundai Asan invested $240 million to build facilities in the mountain resort, such as hotels, restaurants and tour roads. It also paid $500 million for the rights to develop infrastructure, such as power utilities, telecommunication and airport, among others.

The investment brought Hyundai Asan to the brink of bankruptcy, the threat of which was heightened in 2003 when Chung Mong-hun, heir to Hyundai Group's founding family who spearhead the business ventures in North Korea, committed suicide after an investigation into his role in illegal deals with North Korea.

Six years after its birth, however, the Kumgang tourism venture has survived and is set to pay off with promises of growing further as a symbol of inter-Korean peace and reconciliation.

The tour project has attracted more than 1.1 million tourists from the South through the newly built overland route. The resort attracted a record 272,820 South Koreans in 2004, up from 3,317 in 1998 and 7,280 in 2000. Some 24,000 tourists visited Kumgang this year as of the end of August.

Hyundai Asan's sales jumped to $171.5 million last year compared with $86.1 million in 2003. Its operating loss was reduced to $9.6 million in 2004 from $55.1 million a year earlier.

"We expect to post profits this year despite some troubles in the Mount Kumgang business," Kwon of Asan said, referring to a recent management dispute.

North Korea has cut the number of Kumgang visitors to 600 a day from the 1,000 to 1,200 since late August, calling for Kim Yoon-kyu to be reinstated as Hyundai Asan president.

But Hyundai Group that owns Hyundai Asan indirectly denied the demand on Friday as it announced Kim misappropriated about $1.1 million of the company funds for personal use and engaged in inappropriate deals while he was at the helm of the Kumgang tour business.

The scandal is expected to deal a severe blow to the North's mountain tourism project because the South Korean government also funded the inter-Korean business.

North Korea has yet to respond but is most likely to react negatively as indicated by a North Korean guide on the Kumgang mountain.

"I can't understand Mr. Kim's dismissal, who has played a key role in promoting inter-Korean business projects. It is the breach of trust with us," said Lim Kang Chol, 31. "Gen. Kim Jong Il has called for the people to respect senior revolutionaries. Why South Koreans don't respect seniors (like Kim)?"

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N.Korea Covered By Slogans
Mount Kumgang, North Korea (UPI) Oct 03, 2005
A visit to North Korea's Mount Kumgang or Diamond, gives South Korean visitors a rare view at the fabled valley in the peninsula's most scenic mountain on the east coast.

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