Worker’s Party State Newspaper Rodong Sinmun reported on the 23rd of October that the Marshall Kim Jong Un visited the tourist area of the Kumgangsan region in Kangwon Province. During the visit, the leader heavily criticised the area, describing some buildings as ‘hotchpotch’ and lacking ‘national character’. The remarks are scathing when you consider the tourist resort was built in collaboration with South Korea as part of an inter-Korean joint project to promote tourism to Kumgangsan from the south. Many of the buildings were financed by southern companies such as Hyundai Asan suggesting the attack on the design and poor-quality of the resort is likely thinly veiled attack on the south.
South Korean tourism to Kumgang began in the late 1990s, with the official ‘Tourist Region’ being established in 2002 to administer the area separately from the rest of Kangwon Province. Over 1 million tourists travelled to the area, initially by boat, but later via a new highway constructed through the DMZ. The Inter-Korean transit office and other infrastructure is still visible on the southern side on the way up to the Goseong Unification Observatory which looks out over the DMZ and into the Kumgangsan region. Numerous companies from the Republic of Korea invested heavily in the region which, at the time, was seen by some as the start of North Korea’s opening up to foreign investment and better inter-Korean relations, especially since the timing of the opening lined up with President Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ which sought to improve inter-Korean relations. Corporations such as Hyundai and Ananti invested in the region building hotels and other facilities which still exist in the region (inc. the Outer Kumgang Hotel which is still available to foreign tourists visiting the DPRK).
In 2008 tours to the North by South Koreans were suspended after a tourist was shot whilst reportedly trespassing in a military restricted area. Later that same year, the DPRK announced the expulsion of unnecessary South Korean workers from the site before totally shutting down access to the area.
Since the closure, the reopening of the Kumgangsan Tourist Region has long been an aspiration for pro-engagement lawmakers in the South, hence the recent news comes as a blow to inter-Korean relations which had been stalling in recent weeks and months, exacerbated by the recent failed working-level talks between the DPRK and US in Stockholm.
One glimmer of hope for the area however, came in the form of the following statement:
“…we will always welcome our compatriots from the south if they want to come to Mt Kumgang after it is wonderfully built as the world-level tourist destination but what is important is for our people to have the shared view that it is not desirable to let the south side undertake the tour of Mt Kumgang, our famous mountain.” – Kim Jong Un
The article also made clear that the DPRK intends to take full control of the tourist region in the future, taking control away from government agencies and corporations in the south; likely a sign that Pyongyang is keen to reap the economic benefits of having such a region rejuvenated and reopened without needing to surrender any control of the area to Seoul.
Will the area reopen? If Pyongyang invests, as it says it will, in the region then it may become a more significant tourist destination for locals and foreigners than it already is, although the final decision on inter-Korean travel will come down to government departments in Seoul rather than Pyongyang. At a time of growing tensions, the risks for south Korean tourists may be slightly too high to consider reopening the border. The administration in the south may also not be too keen to reopen a site which has the potential to act as such a significant source of international currency for the DPRK, however, with the potential rebuilding, we could see the DPRK soften its stance on allowing southern tourists into Kumgang in the future. It may fall to Seoul to make a final decision on the region.