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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Behind North Korea's Fence




CHANGJON, North Korea -- Call it "Theme Park, North Korea."


It is a small new vacation spot at the edge of this Hermit Kingdom, one of the most closed nations on Earth. To get there, tourists must travel by boat under cover of night, start out in the wrong direction, then double back, and surrender powerful cameras and binoculars upon arrival.


Two-and-a-half-meter-high barbed-wire fences surround the "resort" compound, barring ordinary North Koreans from entry while fencing in tourists. There are heavy penalties for everything from taking photos almost everywhere to talking politics or economics with North Korean "minders." And only U.S. dollars, please, for that 40 percent alcohol "Bear Bones" liquor ($15) or the "Vigor of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea" health elixir ($25).


Set amid the fabled Kumgang mountains and run by South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Group, this patch of capitalism opened to non-Korean tourists for the first time earlier this year.


Hyundai dubs the four-day, three-night excursion to Communist North Korea the "Dream Tour."


South Koreans have been coming in droves since the tours began in late 1998: More than 150,000 people have shelled out at least $750 apiece for the journey that includes two days of hiking amid peaks carved with giant ideological inscriptions from the late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. Visitors from the South are so enthusiastic about the tour that some couples have taken their wedding vows on board the ship.


Korean folklore, poetry and songs exhort the beauty of Kumgang's thousands of jagged peaks. Though they are not nearly as spectacular as the Alps, Andes or Sierra Nevada, the so-called Diamond Mountains have become a metaphor for South Koreans' longing to see a beloved area so close to their border but off-limits for five decades. "We are missing the Kumgang mountains," laments one classic South Korean song.


For some tourists, the journey is particularly sentimental: When war tore the peninsula apart half a century ago, an estimated 1 million families were separated. While the "Dream Tour" forbids interaction with local citizens, just setting foot in the North can be soul-stirring.


"I didn't come for the mountains," said Song Hee Chou, 67. "I came because it's my home." Song has no idea what has become of the parents, brother and sister he left behind half a century ago. "I just wanted to set foot in the place," he said, his voice choking with emotion.


It was the stuff of spy novels that lured Norwegian Nils Klepp, 31, to fork over $410, the discounted price offered to about 100 foreigners who joined several hundred South Koreans on the venture during the frigid Lunar New Year holiday in February. The two Koreas technically are still at war. A total of 1.8 million troops, including about 37,000 U.S. soldiers, are posted along the demilitarized zone, the world's most heavily fortified border.


The tour offered a rare peek into the secretive, Stalinist nation that the United States recently cited as "the most significant near-term danger" in Asia.


"I came to see the Cold War," said Klepp, a naval architect working in South Korea. "I wanted to see Kalashnikovs, barking Alsatian dogs and men in green suits."


He got the green suits galore: Stone-faced North Korean military officers, clad in faded double-breasted gray-green coats with gold buttons and red epaulets, stood sentry nearly every 100 meters along what appeared to be the sole paved road in the area. The road was accessible only to the tour buses and Hyundai vehicles, which travel from the resort area to the hiking trails, a lake and the coast of the Sea of Japan.


In one area, a dirt path used by locals runs parallel to the paved road, separated by a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. Glimpses of what appeared to be real life in North Korea could be seen through the fence, although even that was a matter of some debate.


"It seemed like the 'Truman Show,'" said Arthur Guiness of Pasadena, California. "Almost everything we saw seemed paraded before us. Even the bicycles seemed like they were programmed to go by at a certain time, and some of the buildings seemed to be just facades, with no windows."


Clusters of neatly lined bungalows formed a few small villages amid groves of apple and pear trees. Tiny back yards were stacked with mulch, with signs naming the work groups that had collected it. A few oxen pulled carts.


Schoolchildren carrying satchels walked along old snow-dusted railroad tracks that once led to South Korea. Other children used sticks as poles to propel tiny sleds across frozen rice paddies.


The people wore coats and shoes and, from afar, did not look emaciated, despite widespread reports of famine in North Korea. Youngsters waved at the tour buses, but most of the adults showed no reaction. The area looked no better or worse than many rural parts of Eastern Europe.


What was striking was the monochromatic barrenness of the scenery: A dull grayish-brown that matched the Kumgang's bald peaks seemed to coat all the buildings. The limbs and tops of the few trees that weren't evergreens had been chopped off, presumably to be used to heat houses. A Hyundai manager who lives at the site said the townspeople get only two hours of electricity a week, have no oil or coal, and have no stores.


The North Korean government forbids the locals from working at what American Stanley Lobdell, who runs a garment business in Seoul, dubbed "Camp Hyundai." The conglomerate hires ethnic Koreans from China who work for $300 a month, one-tenth what it would cost Hyundai to hire South Koreans for the same jobs.


The term "resort" is a stretch: The few facilities include some souvenir shops and concession stands, and a new performance hall where visitors can shell out $25 extra to see the Pyongyang Circus. (A Hyundai guide said the hall was built to resemble the Sydney Opera House, to which an Australian tourist joked, "I've never been so insulted.") There's also a lovely spa ($12 extra) withindoor and outdoor baths with mountain vistas, and a dock for the cruise liners. Hyundai plans to open hotels at the site and erect a golf course and ski slope.


So far, Hyundai has forked over about $206 million to the North Korean government, with plans to contribute $942 million more by March 2005. The sum includes the $200 the North Korean government assesses Hyundai for each tourist. Hyundai expects the venture to begin eking out profits in 2001, when an estimated 500,000 will travel annually to the resort, up from the 380,000 expected this year.


The tours are tightly regimented - everything must be done as a group - with restrictions that convey how paranoid the North Koreans still are.


The "Dream Tour" begins with the overnight boat ride, which could seemingly be completed faster in a rowboat. The ship steams out of Donghae port in northeastern South Korea at nightfall, deliberately heading east instead of north. After cruising toward Japan for several hours, it loops back toward Changjon. A more direct path would cover less than 200 kilometers, but this journey takes 13 hours.


Why the meandering routing? North Korean officials don't want their coastline monitored. When the boat docks overnight in Changjon, North Korean patrol boats train searchlights on the ship to guard against escapees.


While en route, the South Korean tourists are separated from the foreigners and shown a film hailing the benefits of the Kumgang tour, one of the most significant steps in South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy." That effort not only seeks to engage the North in dialogue and partnerships but also has stirred hopes that Kumgang could one day be the site of North-South family reunions.


All passengers are lectured about the myriad rules and fines (urinating in public, at $10, is cheaper than spitting, $15). "North Korea is the only Communist country in the world," the South Korean guide told foreigners on the boat, exaggerating the truth. "So you must be careful and you must listen to us."


The tour did provide a rare opportunity for interaction with ordinary North Koreans. One of the most poignant moments came during the circus performance, the only place where any emotions, real or contrived, were on display.


About half a dozen orchestra members, all sporting smiles and Kim Il Sung pins, played while Pyongyang acrobats juggled, pirouetted on trapezes and bounced on seesaws that propelled their somersault-turning colleagues into the air. In one act, two clowns pulled beefy South Korean tourist Han Jeong Hoon, 31, onto the stage and pretended to drop a heavy ball on him; it turned out to be a balloon. One clown then hugged Han, a member of the South Korean military reserve, which he says holds Pyongyang as the enemy; he in turn planted a spontaneous kiss on the North Korean man's cheek.


"Throughout this trip, I thought we were still behind the Iron Curtain, since we only met minders," Han said later. "But on stage, he hugged me, and at that moment, I felt we are the same people, we are brothers."