MOUNT KUMKANG, NORTH KOREA — For years I had tried to visit North Korea. But my visa applications were always rejected, despite the $80 fee required each time. So it was with much anticipation that I finally signed up for my first visit - thanks to South Korea's Hyundai Corp.
Best known as a carmaker, the company has constructed a massive tourism development just north of the DMZ, in North Korea's beautiful Diamond Mountains. It's one of the few areas in the country, besides the capital, that's open to visitors, although access is strictly limited.
In the past six years, 760,000 tourists, 99 percent of them South Korean, have quietly traveled through the heavily mined DMZ into North Korea, bringing welcome cash with them.
They can spend several days trekking in the rugged mountains, soaking in hot springs at a spa, and generally pinching themselves that they're actually inside one of the members of the "axis of Evil."
A Hyundai executive half-jokingly says that his company's excursions are called "Don't Do It! Tours." Cellphones, laptops, telephoto lenses, and powerful binoculars are strictly verboten. Visitors must wear photo ID tags at all times. Photos are forbidden inside the DMZ and in the North. You are not to point at a North Korean, and, in the unlikely event you talk with a resident, you are to avoid any political statements.
Two years ago a South Korean woman reportedly asked a North Korean why President Kim Jong Il was the only fat man in the country, and was detained for several days as a result.
With this in mind, I joined a large group of South Koreans at 8 a.m. at the southern side of the DMZ, where we boarded 15 new buses.
Driving slowly in convoy, we trundled past 12-foot-high barbed wire fences, over small bridges with massive concrete tank traps (each mined with explosive charges), and, finally, past smiling South Korean soldiers standing inside sandbagged guard posts.
Those were the last smiles we were to see for the next 72 hours.
Once on the North Korean side, we were shepherded out of our buses for a second ID check, this time by the North Korean soldiers. One of my cameras was taken away, due to its slight telephoto lens. (It was returned to me on my way out of the country.)
Once we were back on the bus, two stern North Korean soldiers boarded briefly. Lean as whippets, their faces burned brown by the sun, they walked from back to front, counting heads. They looked 16 but were probably 20. Under North Korean law, every male must spend 10 years in the military. Women spend seven.
Our convoy continued northward through dry, rugged terrain that evokes the landscape seen in old cowboy films. But Hollywood Westerns don't have armed North Korean soldiers standing at attention every 100 yards, mile after mile, every one holding a red flag. Should anyone decide to sneak his camera up to the bus window, a flag would be raised, and presumably the bus would be halted.
For the entire trip we, all 300 of us, moved en masse - like an extended school field trip. We spent a splendid day hiking up stone staircases carved in the mountains - glinting sunshine reflected in the clear streams that plunged powerfully down the mountainsides. My favorite moment came at the top of one peak, where I encountered a dozen elderly Korean halmoni (grandmothers). Their eyes twinkled with pure joy at just being there, for each had been born in the North and had only now been able to return.
One night we were delighted by the marvelous antics of a North Korean circus, complete with a full orchestra in the balcony. A Russian woman sitting next to me was swept by a sudden wave of nostalgia. "This music - it is completely Russian, from my childhood!" she whispered to me.
In a nation where the average monthly salary is $47, North Korea earns $50 for every foreigner who visits. Moralists might question the wisdom of giving money to a harsh totalitarian regime. But the UN's World Tourism Organization endorses the Hyundai program as a way to help reduce poverty in North Korea.
While in the country, I desperately tried to talk to some actual North Koreans. But all outsiders travel in a virtual bubble, as a way to just about eliminate contact between North Koreans and outsiders. Except for the hotel's doormen, all the staff we encountered were recruited from ethnic Korean communities in China - and they are rotated back to China every three months.
Still, I must wonder what those rail-thin young soldiers boarding the buses each day think, as they come face to face with hundreds of South Koreans, whose round smiling faces and vivid, fashionable clothing convey prosperity. Maybe they will start to ask themselves: Why is there only one fat man in this land, yet so many from the South?