Mount Geum­gang

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Don­ald Kirk Don­ald Kirk (www.don­ald­kirk.com) has been cov­er­ing con­flict in the region, in­clud­ing be­tween the two Koreas, for decades.

Mount Geum­gang evokes so many mem­o­ries. The first time I went there, in April 1995, was with a group of Korean-Cana­di­ans who had gone to North Korea os­ten­si­bly to at­tend the Py­ongyang In­ter­na­tional Sports and Cul­ture Fes­ti­val, fea­tur­ing the Ja­panese wrestler An­to­nio Inoki and the Amer­i­can Ric Flair, two of the great­est of all-time. This group, which I had joined at the sugges­tion of a diplo­mat in North Korea’s UN mis­sion, had not gone there to watch the wrestling.

The show in Py­ongyang, staged in May Day sta­dium be­fore record crowds of nearly 200,000, the largest ever for pro­fes­sional wrestling, scan­dal­ized most of those in our group. Stand­ing on the grass in the mid­dle of the sta­dium, al­most at ring­side, we could not be­lieve the North was stag­ing such an event. The el­derly women in the group prac­ti­cally fainted as they watched the wrestlers slam­ming, butting and throw­ing their op­po­nents around. They gasped even more when they saw matches be­tween fe­male wrestlers in brief at­tire at­tack­ing one an­other with the same fe­roc­ity as the men.

North Korea had opened up for the event, and th­ese peo­ple were there in search of the chance to meet long-lost rel­a­tives with whom our guides, af­ter much coax­ing, ar­ranged brief vis­its. Over 12 days in the North, con­sid­er­ably longer than the av­er­age tourist visit, we also were treated to the ba­sic sights, the usual mon­u­ments and stat­ues, Kim Il-sung’s child­hood home and, yes, a ride in a van south to Geum­gang.

For me, the Geum­gang visit was the high­light of the trip - that is, not count­ing the bizarre ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing pro­fes­sional wrestling in May Day sta­dium with the box­ing heavy weight Mo­hammed Ali, a friend of Inoki’s, vis­i­ble in the stands. Geum­gang had not yet opened to South Korean tourism and Hyundai had yet to build the huge re­sort area that Kim Jongun wants to de­mol­ish. We did, how­ever, wit­ness a fan­tas­tic cir­cus fea­tur­ing a danc­ing bear and high­wire trapeze acts at a the­ater in the mid­dle of the tourist zone, and we plunged into a hot spring spa in the same ho­tel where we spent one night. Oh, and of course we hiked to Kury­ong wa­ter­fall, four kilo­me­ters up a rather steep trail, a must­see for visi­tors to Geum­gang.

By the time I vis­ited Geum­gang for a sec­ond time, South and North Korea had agreed on a deal for boats to carry tourists from the South Korean east coast port of Dong­hae to a small port fa­cil­ity built by Hyundai near the re­sort area. The boat was our ho­tel. We saw the same sights that I had seen dur­ing my first visit. The dif­fer­ence was it was mid-win­ter, and we had to wear cram­pons on our walk­ing shoes to scram­ble up the icy trail to Kury­ong Falls, which had frozen into a tower of ice. The cir­cus still fea­tured those great high-wire artists, but I think the bear had been re­tired.

A few years later, I can’t quite re­mem­ber when, North-South re­la­tions had im­proved enough for the North to ap­prove travel across the North-South line by road. North Korean im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials made sure our names were on their list and let us through to board a bus to Geum­gang. This time we stayed in a ho­tel, one of the struc­tures that Kim Jong-un wants to tear down. Again, the hike to Kury­ong Falls was on the itin­er­ary.

When I vis­ited Geum­gang for the fourth and fi­nal time in 2012, times had changed. South Korean tourism ended with the killing of a South Korean wo­man by a North Korean soldier who shot her dead af­ter she ig­nored his warnings not to wan­der out­side the tourist zone. I got to go there with a small group of schol­ars and ed­u­ca­tors, mostly from the U.S. and Canada.

The sights were the same, but the visit was re­veal­ing. It was star­tling to see the tourist zone com­pletely de­serted. The Hong Kong team run­ning the duty-free shop told me they had al­most no cus­tomers. Of course, the high-wire act had gone. Our ho­tel was empty ex­cept for us. No­body else was on the trail to the falls other than maybe one or two Chi­nese tourists.

Now Kim Jong-un talks about re­plac­ing all the Hyundai-built ho­tels, shops and smaller houses with what he be­lieves will be the far bet­ter cre­ations of his own ar­chi­tects.

No doubt South Korea and Hyundai, which built most of the zone and was responsibl­e for its up­keep, will get to­tally ripped off, as hap­pens in most deals with the North Kore­ans.

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