Vacation in North Korea?

September 9, 2011

If you are planning to take an exotic vacation, maybe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is your place.

A week ago I joined a group of foreign journalists and a delegation of Chinese tourism agents on a trip highlighted by a cruise that left the port area of North Korea’s Rason City and headed south to the country’s famous Mont Kumgang resort. To get to the ship, we took a bus from China to a border crossing in Hunchun. Before we arrived at customs, our Chinese guides collected our mobile phones. North Korean authorities don’t allow foreigners to carry any type of mobile communications.

When we crossed a bridge over the river Tumen Jiang, which marks the border between China and North Korea, we passed from a modern highway to an unpaved country road.

On the way to Rason City we had the rare chance to see rural life in one of the most isolated countries on the planet. My first impressions were of people riding old bicycles along the road, green corn fields, gentle rolling hills, and the sensation of breathing clean air.

When we arrived in Rason City, things changed. As the bus pulled onto the city streets, we left behind the green of the countryside and entered a sprawling grey landscape, where the only bright colors were on propaganda paintings.

We stopped for lunch in a place that looked like a restaurant for officials or special guests. Inside, 28-year-old Pak Ok Hui waited for costumers at a food-gift shop, with just with a few scant items for sale– eggs, dried fish and a handful of mementos.

My first interaction with a local in Rason City was at the reception of the hotel during the check-in. A woman in her fifties was talking on the phone in front of a big world map. It showed the Korean peninsula marked in red, with a white star in the middle. It served as a reminder of the idea of a single Korea; one big communist country.

After visiting a monument of the leader Kim Il-sung , schoolchildren performed and we were taken to an art exhibit of propaganda paintings. Then we arrived at the port where we boarded a 1970’s cargo ship that had been converted into a cruise ship.

As we were waiting for the departure ceremony a groups of locals (brought there by the authorities) arrived holding plastic flowers and North Korean flags to give us a celebratory send-off.

The trip was organized by Korea Taepung International investment group as part of an effort to promote Mount Kumgang resort as a tourist destination. The resort was initially a joint project between North and South Korea but it ran into problems after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean woman who strayed outside of a tourist zone.

After this incident, South Korea stopped sending tourists and demanded an investigation. Eventually, just weeks ago, North Korean authorities took full control of the resort and expelled the last South Koreans working there, with the intention of reviving it.

(Relatives of Park Wang-ja, who was shot and killed at a Kumgang mountain resort in North Korea, carry her portrait and coffin during her funeral at Seoul Asan Hospital in Seoul July 15, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won)

The resort is surrounded by rock mountains and waterfalls and includes seven hotels, as well as a commercial area with an auditorium, a golf court, sand beaches and picturesque lakes. The resort also boasts a perfect summer climate.

In contrast with this beautiful landscape and the potential of this area, I was very surprised to see crew members of the cruise ship throwing all the restaurant’s garbage overboard, into the sea. Members of the Chinese tourism delegation did the same with their empty beer bottles.

Overall, if you plan to take a vacation completely disconnected from normal life, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is your place.

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