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Hear Andrew Wood's report on his journey to Kumgang
"Foreign tourists seem to enjoy themselves - with reservations"
 real 28k

Monday, 7 February, 2000, 10:01 GMT
North Korea opens up to tourists

Pyongyang The North Korean capital Pyongyang: No luxury cruises here, yet

By Andrew Wood on the SS Pung-Ak

North Korea has welcomed its first fare-paying foreign tourists.

A group of 29 people from the United States, Canada, Thailand, Germany and Britain have joined a South Korean party on a four-day tour.

North Korea remains a very closed society where the economy has come close to collapse and hundreds of of people are believed to have died as a result of famine.

Kim Jong Il N. Korean leader Kim Jong Il: Still at war with the south
But for the past year South Koreans have been able to take $2,000 luxury cruises to a small part of a country with which they're still officially at war.

One of the South's biggest companies, Hyundai, has been organising the cruises and tours to the Kumgang mountains just the other side of the demilitarised zone which separates the two Koreas.

Barbed wire

The tourists arrived on board the SS Pung-Ak at the North Korean port of Chang-jon, which is fairly bleak place with hillsides dusted with snow.

The countryside is stunning, with frozen lakes and waterfalls in the mountains.

But the poverty, too, is arresting and there is no contact with ordinary North Koreans.

At the port, the staff at the Hyundai tourism complex are all ethnic Koreans, but they come from China.

The only North Koreans that the tour group meets are specially selected guides, who are more like spies than helpers.

The area is a very sensitive military area for North Koreans.

The road to the mountains is lined with barbed wire and tourists are not allowed to take photographs.

Nonetheless, foreign tourists seem to enjoy themselves - albeit with reservations.

"It was a little scary," said one, "a very controlled place."

"This was one of the most exciting tours I've been on," said another. "I've found this to be like a museum, an outdoor museum, beautiful mountains."

Supporters of business links like the cruises hope they will help to lure North Korea out of its isolation, paving the way for eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula, although that still seems a very long way off.

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See also:
14 Dec 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan lifts North Korea sanctions
18 Sep 99 |  Asia-Pacific
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13 Sep 99 |  Asia-Pacific
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13 Sep 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: The trouble with North Korea
13 Oct 99 |  Americas
New strategy urged for North Korea

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