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Kumgang to open its doors soon

Attractions were once popular destinations for South Koreans
July 16,2019
North Korea will offer tours of Mount Kumgang to foreigners beginning this month, according to its state media on Sunday. DPRK Today, a state-run propaganda website, said the North would host this year’s Mount Kumgang tours from late July to late November. DPRK is an acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

According to the outlet, tourists can hike, fish or relax at natural hot springs at the Mount Kumgang resort for three nights and four days on package tours.

The tour will also take them to areas like the Kuryong Falls, Lake Samilpo, or the Haekumgang (Sea Kumgang), all iconic areas at Mount Kumgang, one of the most renowned natural landscapes on the Korean Peninsula.

Also known as the Diamond Mountain, Mount Kumgang is comprised of hundreds of rocky peaks and steep ravines that were a favorite subject of Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) artists and poets. Yet after Korea’s division, the mountain was off limits to most foreigners until 1998, when Chung Ju-yung, founder of South Korean conglomerate Hyundai, signed an agreement with North Korean authorities to develop the area for commercial tourism.

Along with the border city of Kaesong, once the capital of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), Mount Kumgang was the mantelpiece of South Korean tourism to the North. Well over a million South Korean citizens are believed to have visited the resort until one tourist was shot to death after allegedly trespassing an off-limits area in 2008, which prompted Seoul to suspend the program indefinitely.

While it lost its primary source of tourist income as a result of the South’s measure, Pyongyang continues to host foreign tourism to Mount Kumgang and designated the area a special tourist zone in 2011. The Kumgangsan International Travel Company, one of the country’s official travel agencies, advertised a travel package to the area for foreigners in April last year.

During last year’s flurry of inter-Korean summits, the two Koreas agreed to resume tours for South Koreans to the area as soon as possible. Yet such a tourism program, as well as operations of South Korean-owned factories at the North’s Kaesong Industrial Complex, remains banned under international sanctions, preventing Seoul from going forward on economic exchanges with the North.

Attempts to attract more foreign visitors to Mount Kumgang may be part of the North’s efforts to generate foreign currency amid continued economic difficulties. The venues advertised in DPRK Today’s report were popular destinations for South Korean visitors in the past under package tours offered by Hyundai Asan.

Speculation continues to surround whether the United States will grant the South permission to renew its joint ventures with the North at Kaesong and Mount Kumgang, though U.S. officials have repeatedly said in the past that such initiatives would be impossible unless Pyongyang moves forward with its denuclearization.

In an op-ed for the Washington Post on Sunday, former deputy director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Morell, wrote that restarting the Kaesong Industrial Complex could perhaps be an appropriate limited sanction relief that Washington could offer the North in exchange for a freeze in its nuclear program.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]