In North Korea's isolated tourist zone, a temple rises

Its South Korean funders say it offers potential for cultural exchange. But the monk who oversees it readily admits no North Koreans may visit.

As they lead visitors along a trail below craggy rocks inscribed with praise for the late "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, young North Korean guides offer a carefully crafted narrative.

They criticize President Bush. They take on US policy. And last weekend, they appeared eager to denounce the dismissal of Kim Yoon Kyu, who is currently under investigation for fraud. The South Korean executive worked for more than 10 years to develop this unusual tourist zone on the east coast several miles above the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.

"We are willing to reduce the number of tourists coming here as an expression of our confidence in him," says Koo Eun Hyun, a smiling 20-year-old, repeating the North's demand for reinstatement of Mr. Kim as president of Hyundai Asan, part of the Hyundai group, which is investing $1 billion in building the complex.

Mr. Kim led the project, now subsidized by the South Korean government, from the time the first shiploads of visitors sailed from South Korea seven years ago. Tourists now travel by newly paved road, and Hyundai Asan in June announced the millionth visitor - far short of the 5 million it had hoped for.

Indeed, the project loses vast amounts of money, and is likely to lose still more. The standoff over Kim's dismissal is escalating amid a South Korean investigation into alleged fraud in economic projects in the North - including whether some funds wound up in the hands of North Korean officials - prompting the North to cut the quota of tourists from 1,200 to 600 a day.

Perhaps as a result, Kim Young Hyun, a Hyundai Asan vice president, prefers to talk about a $10 million project, largely funded by South Korea and Hyundai Asan, to rebuild a Buddhist temple complex inside the zone that was largely destroyed in the Korean War. "Buddhism is traditionally the religion for Koreans," he says. "Cultural exchange can be the foundation of economic exchange."

The Venerable Jejeong, the scholarly South Korean monk who oversees the complex readily admits that North Koreans are banned from the complex, just as they are from the rest of the zone, except when they come to work. Those few North Koreans on the site, he says, "ask questions about history but do not ask other questions."

In fact, he says, he's never talked to North Koreans outside the zone and has no idea how freely - or if - they can practice their religion. Still, he shares the optimism of South Korean authorities about the future.

"We can minimize the differences and find common ground," says Mr. Jejeong, who has practiced Buddhism in Thailand and San Francisco. "Currently our educational systems are completely different. North Koreans are not interested in religion."

Jejeong places his hopes for opening the temple to worship "after unification." He cites an easing of religious restraints in China. "The North Koreans may be influenced by China indirectly," he muses.

In the meantime, the temple serves as a monument to North Korean propaganda. A plaque in front of the skeletal outlines of new buildings says that Kim Il Sung and his wife, the mother of current leader Kim Jong Il, visited on Sept. 28, 1947. The plaque blames the leveling of the complex on US bombing.

But for now, North Koreans would rather prove their authority over Hyundai Asan than hark back to the war. Tourists who visit traipse along a few familiar trails, attend an acrobatic performance, dip into baths fed by hot springs and dine in modern restaurants, all closed to North Koreans seen toiling with ancient implements in the fields beyond the wire.

They listen as guides extol the beauties of the region, all under the watchful gaze of North Koreans as anxious to parrot policy as to impose fines for littering.

"We regard [Hyundai Asan's] Kim Yoon Kyu as a pioneer," says Miss Koo. "We sacrifice profits for the sake of friendship."

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