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Vacationing in the Land Without Smiles

A trip to North Korea's Kumkang Mountains' turns out to be fascinating, depressing, and, most of all, surreal

By Sam Jaffe

In the year 1413, close to the dawn of the Chosun dynasty in Korea, the rule of Ho Pae was strictly enforced. For the next few hundred years, every Korean citizen who wasn't a nobleman had to carry a large wooden tablet around his neck at all times that identified where he was from, and to which level of society he belonged. Although ostensibly for tax purposes, Ho Pae institutionalized the stringent class consciousness that still burdens Korean culture today.

Some 400 years later, I found myself in North Korea wearing a plastic identification badge the size of a legal pad that identified me as a foreigner. The 250 or so South Korean tourists who were in my tour group were also forced to wear their ridiculous badges at all times, as were my Korean-American wife and our 8-month-old baby. Echoes of the Ho Pae regime resounded in my mind. The badges had nothing to do with our class, but they did identify us as a potential threat, just as the ruling class 600 years ago perceived the commoners. Welcome to the strange world of vacationing in North Korea.

HYUNDAI'S PLAYGROUND.

  I went to North Korea to see whether I could catch a glimpse of one of the world's last closed societies. I was hoping to find this one opening up to the outside. I feared that I would find a Communist dictatorship taking advantage of Western aid. I found both.

The venue for my trip was a $500-per-person, 3-day, 2-night tour package sponsored by the tourism arm of Korean conglomerate Hyundai. Founder Chung Ju Yung was the first South Korean to cross the De-Militarized Zone in 1998, and Hyundai has led the South's economic push into the North ever since. In a fit of capitalist excess, Hyundai has spent more than $500 million over the past two years building a "tourist zone" in the Kumkang Mountain region of North Korea.

Alas for Hyundai, it hasn't made any profit on the project, mainly because the high price and inconveniences have kept the South Korean crowds away. The zone consists of miles of newly built roads, several hiking paths, a lavish mineral-springs spa, even a hotel that floats on a lake. Rumors are rife in Seoul that Hyundai, which has already written off its capital expenses on the project as a complete loss, will soon cancel the tours because so few South Koreans are interested in the trip.

HOURS BEFORE I SCHLEP.

  Our trip began in the South Korean port of Sokcho on the West Coast. Although Mt. Kumkang is just across the border, North Korea refuses to allow overland visits because it apparently considers tour buses to be a security threat. Instead, people wanting to visit the Kumkang tourist zone must take a very expensive boat trip from Sokcho to the Kumkang range. The journey takes four hours but seems very much longer.

As we arrived, we pulled into a harbor that had a few industrial buildings on one side underneath enormous Korean letters carved out of the rock above the harbor. We would soon become intimately familiar with these "slogan rocks", which dot the Kumkang region. There are more than 20,000 of them, and they usually proclaim a quote from the Great Leader Kim Il Sung or his son, the Dear Leader and current ruler of the North, Kim Jong Il. The one hanging over the port was probably the largest, each letter being dozens of meters in height. At first I was stunned by the audacity of anyone defacing nature with such an ugly scar. Then I remembered the Hollywood sign looming over the hills of L.A. and calmed down a bit.

As the ship docked, we assembled in our pre-ordained teams, draped our badges around our necks, and stepped onto North Korean soil. My first glimpse of a North Korean was a dour-faced man at the passport desk who stared at our documents for a full five seconds. Then he stamped them and motioned us to go on. I thanked him in Korean and smiled broadly, but got no smile in return. Similarly, the soldier manning the X-ray machine refused to return my smile. Nor did the other soldiers milling around the room.

IMPORTED SMILES.

  Finally, we emerged from the customs room into a shopping area, where we were greeted by dozens of smiling shop girls. My first chance to communicate with a North Korean! But, to my disappointment, I soon found out that they were Chinese -- college graduates with tourism majors -- imported to deal with the foreigners. Apparently, face-to-face interaction with tourists is too much of a security risk for North Koreans to do the job.

We piled into our tour buses and started the ride to the central hall of the tourism zone. All we saw were empty rice paddies that were separated from the Hyundai road by an endless barbed-wire fence on either side. Every few hundred yards, a young North Korean soldier stood at full attention. The Hyundai tour guide never explained what those lonely soldiers' mission was. Maybe it was to catch anyone who tried to jump out of the bus. Or maybe just to enforce the ban on taking photos from the bus window. Or maybe it's just Kim Jong Il's concept of hospitality.

Strangely, about 200 yards from the fenced-in tourist road was a broad, double-lane highway. Its only traffic was the occasional man or woman out for an evening stroll, all wearing the same blue coats. Throughout our entire trip, many hours of which were spent driving through the countryside, we saw only one private car and one tractor. But there were plenty of military vehicles, including trucks, jeeps, even mobile rocket launchers.

TOURIST GULAG.

  Our first evening was spent watching a bizarre form of circus acrobatics in a large auditorium. According to the brochure, this troupe of North Korean acrobats is world famous for its wondrous feats. All I saw were a bunch of men in tights doing somersaults and mediocre trapeze tricks, all wearing the same scowl that the passport agent had glued to his face. I was learning that North Koreans simply don't smile -- even the schoolchildren viewed through the windows of our tour bus.

That's not to say that the Kumkang Tour was an altogether depressing experience. Our hike up the mountain on the second day was awe-inspiring. And resting in the elaborate jade-bedecked mineral baths afterwards was wonderfully relaxing. But my optimism for peaceful reunification of the peninsula waned as a result of this trip. Somehow, Kim Jong Il has been able to establish a money-making enterprise that has hosted more than 300,000 tourists since its inception in 1998 -- yet without opening up his country in any meaningful way.

The security restrictions were omnipresent and lent an air of menace, and, in one case, real fear. During our hike, 5 or 6 North Korean "tour guides" accompanied us. They made no effort to guide us. I'm not quite sure what their real role was. I had lingered behind and was taking a panoramic shot when one of these guides came up behind me and said in hard-to-understand English, "Give me your film."

A KODAK MOMENT.

  He was in his early 30s, with an indeterminable expression on his rocky face. He wore the trademark blue jacket and pants made out of Vinalon, a ridiculously rigid North Korean version of polyester. He held his hand out and grabbed my badge. "Where are you from?" "America," I told him, immediately regretting it. Here I was, just 24 hours into the trip, already having my film confiscated and facing the possibility of being arrested.

"Give me your film," he repeated. I pretended not to understand his harsh English accent. He kept repeating it. Not wanting to expose my roll, I decided to try and trick him. I fiddled with the camera, then reached into my pocket and pulled out an unused cartridge. Meanwhile, my wife had come looking for me. She started speaking to him in Korean. I handed him the film canister. He removed the roll to inspect it. My wife kindly pointed out to him that it was unused. He reached into his pocket. I thought I was done for.

Then he smiled, which was stunning in itself. He pulled out a piece of candy, handed it to me, and said, "Thank you." It was the unused film he wanted all along. Long used to travelling in the Middle East, I realized that this was a North Korean version of baksheesh. He strolled on to catch up with the rest of the group. My wife and I stood there dumbstruck.

A GLIMMER OF HOPE.

  The incident, although frightening at first, in the end cast a positive light on my trip. The rest of the time, I did my best to strike up a conversation with the North Korean guides and looked for any situation where I could hand them a roll of film (although there were no other takers). One of the female guides had a long conversation with my wife, asking her what it was like to be married to an American and breaking out into gleeful laughter while inspecting the folds of fat on our baby's arms.

The film incident also gave me a glimmer of hope for the future of North Korea. The man must have had some use for that roll of film. Probably, it had some black market value. And where there's a market, even an underground one, lie the seeds of free enterprise. But sadly, I went to North Korea hoping to find the famously closed society opening like a flower in bloom. Instead I found barbed wire and imported Chinese laborers.

I also came across the bittersweet truth that letting thousands of tourists come into your otherwise unspoiled land has a dark side. While relaxing in the flowing mineral waters in the spa, we saw smoke coming from Mt. Kumkang. Our tour guide estimated that the forest fire started right where we had hiked that day -- right where a lot of people in our tour group were smoking and carelessly throwing away their cigarette butts.

GOING IN CIRCLES.

  By evening, the fire had spread throughout the entire range. Dozens of individual fires could be seen on several different peaks. The guides blamed the fire on the extremely dry season. But our guide admitted that he had never seen fires before. At twilight, after an incredible dinner of ribs, barbecued beef, salmon, and numerous vegetable courses, a large group of us gathered in the parking lot to watch the beautiful but morose sight. I'm sure that the same thought was on all of our minds: If this tourist zone had never been built, those fires would probably have never happened.

A sport-utility vehicle caught my eye at the other end of the parking lot. One of the Hyundai tour guides was giving a driving lesson to a North Korean guide. The car jerked to one side, stopped suddenly, and started again, over and over. As the sunlight faded, the light from the distant fires illuminated the night and we were all silent, save for the two men laughing as they drove together in circles.

Jaffe, who covers markets and finance for BusinessWeek Online, recently traveled to Korea with his family.

Edited by Beth Belton

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