Tourism & totalitarianism: South Korea to open tours to North Korea after summit
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Tourism & totalitarianism: South Korea to open tours to North Korea after summit

THE Trump-Kim Summit sure grabbed the world’s attention.

Watched by everyone, the historic meet in Singapore wrapped up with US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signing a joint document pledging to work together.

While the promise of complete denuclearisation is far from certain, South Korea is already considering expanding tours to the hermit kingdom.

In North Korea, tourism is tightly controlled by its totalitarian government and the handful of travellers who have had the opportunity to visit the mysterious land have described it to be secretive.

SEE ALSO: Trump-Kim Summit: Regional winners and losers

Foreigners are strictly forbidden from interacting with the locals. Tours must be guided by government-sanctioned private tour operators with state-trained guides. No choice of accommodations or meals will be given because everything has already been decided for you.

Tourists have traditionally been restricted to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and straying away from the group or wandering around the hotel after hours may land you in trouble.

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Statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang. Source: Shutterstock.

South Korea currently does not permit its naturalised citizens to travel to North Korea. But, as aforementioned, that’s about to change.

The country’s Culture Ministry is mulling tour programmes in North Korea. Specifically, the ministry is looking at three places.

Mount Kumgang (Diamond Mountain)

One of the best-known mountains in North Korea, Mount Kumgang is located in Kangwon Province, just a stone’s throw away from Gangwon Province, which hosted sites of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Before the division of Korea in 1945, Kangwon Province and Gangwon Province formed a single province.

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An iron bridge over a river against the backdrop of Mount Kumgang in North Korea. Source: Shutterstock.

Mount Kumgang boasts a 5,374 ft-high Birobong peak and the area around the mountain has a specially administered “tourist region”. The region, which is home to a handful of holiday resorts, can be reached by either cruise ship or coach.

South Koreans were once allowed to visit Mount Kumgang, but the tours were suspended when a 53-year-old South Korean tourist was shot and killed while walking on a resort’s beach. She had reportedly crossed over a sand dune and was shot twice by a North Korean soldier.

In 2010, the two Koreas held reunions for one hundred families separated by the Korean War at a hotel and reunion center in Mount Kumgang.

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Mount Kumgang resort hotel in North Korea. Source: Shutterstock.

Currently, Hyundai Asan, an arm of the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Group and a major investor in North Korea, has plans to expand the region with a proper ski resort to complement the current sleigh course and complete golf courses.

Kaesong

Located in North Hwanghae Province in the southern part of North Korea, Kaesong was the capital of Korea during the Taebong kingdom (901 to 918) and subsequent Goryeo dynasty (918 t0 1392).

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A view of the Kaesong city center in North Korea. Source: Shutterstock.

The city is close to the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and the only city to have changed hands from South to North Korean control as a result of the armistice agreement.

It used to house the jointly run Kaesong Industrial Region, a sprawling inter-Korean industrial complex with over 120 South Korean textile and other labor-intensive factories. However, it was shuttered in February 2016 when North Korea ran its fourth nuclear test and launched a long-range rocket.

South Korea used to run tour programmes to Kaesong but that has also been halted amid tensions and strained relationships between the two countries.

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The Koryo Museum in Kaesong, North Korea is a part of Sungkyunkwan University and a Unesco World Heritage Site. Source: Shutterstock.

The city’s attractions include many Goryeo-era sites such as the Kaesong Namdaemun gate, the Koryo Museum, the remains of the Manwoldae Palace, the tombs of kings Kongmin and Wanggon, the Pakyon Falls, and the Pyochung Pavilion, just to name a few.

Mount Baekdu

Also known as Mount Paektu, the 9,003 ft-high peak is an active volcano in the China-North Korea border. It’s also the highest mountain on the Korean Peninsula and one of the three “spirited” mountains, the other two being Mount Jiri in South Gyeongsang Province and Mount Halla in Jeju island.

Atop the mountain in a caldera lies a large crater lake of emerald water, called Heaven Lake. The caldera was formed by a violent eruption in 946.

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The revered Heaven Lake, loved by North and South Koreans, as well as the Chinese. Source: Shutterstock.

North and South Koreans consider the volcano and its caldera lake to be their respective countries’ spiritual home.

Rumor has it that the 1,260 ft-deep Heaven Lake is home to mythical monsters that “could swim as fast as yachts”. In 2007, people in China reported sightings of giant seal-like or scaled and horned creatures in the lake.

It was later debunked by scientists, who said the water is too cold for large animals.

On the North Korean side of the mountain, there are a number of monuments, including one of the late Kim Il Sung in military attire.

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Coaches park near the Mount Baekdu summit. Source: Shutterstock.

These days, tourists head to Mount Baekdu to hike and enjoy scenic views of the waterfalls, rivers, and hot springs.

To get there, tourists need to hop on a government-provided coach at the airport in Samjiyon and get shuttled to the mountain.

When can South Koreans start touring the above North Korean destinations?

South Korea’s Culture Ministry has said it would be difficult to provide a time frame given the need to inspect tour facilities in the North as well as to work out details with companies.

However, a task force has been launched to prepare for possible tour programmes in the North by South Korean tourists, according to the Korea Tourism Organisation.

This article originally appeared on our sister site Travel Wire Asia