The Diamond Mountains of Korea's east coast are mythologized in Buddhist scripture, ensconced in Korean consciousness, and until now have been tantalizingly trapped behind North Korea's hermetic borders. Soon however, South Korean luxury cruise ships may begin sightseeing tours to the region.
The trip is a big attraction for South Koreans. Many who fled south during the Korean War worry they'll never set foot in the homeland again. But the tours have become a test for South Korea's new "sunshine policy" toward its estranged neighbor.
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung hopes that letting "sunshine" into North Korea - easing restrictions on business deals in the North - will facilitate inter-Korean reconciliation. Hundreds of South Korean businessmen have been attracted to the idea of the North's cheap labor force and a walk-on role in the emotional drama of Korean unification.
But this summer a North Korean spy submarine, a drowned infiltrator, and a rocket test were all reminders of the tense standoff on the Korean peninsula.
And the mountain trips are still not the visit many crave. Tourists must abide by North Korea's rules: No slandering of its leadership or system. Contacts with North Koreans will be limited to tour guides, no relatives. To guard against spying (and ensure sales of the government's videos) no cameras are allowed.
The tours are a steppingstone for Hyundai Group, for one, which is launching the first luxury cruise ship and has plans to set up auto, steelmaking, and ship salvaging ventures in North Korea. But it hasn't been easy. To prime the pump, Hyundai founder Chung Ju Young donated 500 cows to North Korea in June.
Besides delays from North Korea, resistance from the South's lawmakers has emerged. Hyundai had expected a gambling license and lower taxes for their ships. Two weeks ago, 90 lawmakers petitioned to postpone the project, saying a $300 entrance fee per tourist is too high. Opponents say the tourists, traveling through militarized waters to an unpredictable country, should have government-to-government assurances of safety. Instead, the North has dealt directly with the companies involved.
Many doubt North Korea is prepared for so many visitors. Others dismiss the cruises as a quixotic project of Hyundai's Mr. Chung, a native of North Korea. The idea comes from "an aged enterpriser who got so homesick, who would like something done before the sun sets on his life - it's highly emotional, rather than practical," says Lee Dong Bok, a member of the National Assembly with North Korean expertise.
Although there have been hundreds of inquiries, business just isn't profitable in North Korea, says Mr. Lee. As of July, just five South Korean companies had invested in North Korea. "So much talk, so little action," he says.
Sunshine supporters say tourism will supply North Korea with money it would otherwise earn by selling missiles. Nothing guarantees that tourist dollars won't go to the military or that missile sales will stop. But North Korea has little choice but to open up, say proponents, who defend their policy as one of patience. In any case, "the opposition isn't strong enough to turn it off," says a Western observer.
Supporters also point to evidence of North Korea reaching out as something that should be encouraged. As part of a Tumen River regional investment forum in China last week, North Korea invited potential investors across the border to its Rajin-Sonbong free-trade zone. Several nationalities were to be represented.
Those with close business ties to North Korea say the North is taking a wise go-slow approach. The North fears a fast opening could lead to Russian-style problems with corruption and gangsters, they say.
On the other hand, besides Rajin-Sonbong, there is little reason to think North Korea intends to open up. They've "legalized strategies for subsistence ... [not] economic growth," says the Western observer. North Korea has historically filled needs by raising tensions and has little reason to lower them, he says. "North Korea is not quite ready to make economic deals. They don't understand capitalism. [They're] just interested in getting cash," says Ham Daik Young, a political scientist at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
The official North Korea line is the least promising. Said the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun last week: "It is a foolish daydream to try to revive the economy by introducing foreign capital, not relying on one's own strength.... We will ... set ourselves against all the attempts to induce us to join an 'integrated' world. We have nothing to 'reform' and 'open.'"