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South Korean Tourism Resort in North Under Scrutiny


The international community is looking at ways to enforce U.N. sanctions imposed after North Korea conducted its first-ever nuclear test on October 9th. South Korea -- which has been trying to bring its communist neighbor out of international isolation through economic engagement -- is coming under pressure to end its tourism project in North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort. The project has been criticized as nothing more than a money maker which may be helping fund North Korea's nuclear weapons program. VOA Seoul Correspondent Kurt Achin traveled to Mount Kumgang to have a first-hand look.

Mount Kumgang, North Korea is a misty, tranquil mountain resort where busloads of South Koreans arrive each day to enjoy hiking, scenery, and a closer connection to nature.

But this resort is under scrutiny because it has earned North Korea hundreds of millions of dollars in the six years since South Korea began running it -- revenue which may have been used to fund its nuclear weapons program to the chagrin of the international community.

South Korean executives say there was a 50 percent cancellation rate at Kumgang resort the week after the North's first-ever nuclear test on October 9th and bookings are only slowly recovering.

Visitors that do arrive have no trouble remembering they are in communist North Korea. Political minders enforce rules about what can and cannot be done.

Sightseers may not, for example, photograph the villages surrounding the South Korean-funded resort. Those are fenced off and guarded by North Korean soldiers.

Tourists are allowed to approach an impeccably groomed mural of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his revered father, former leader Kim Il Sung. But a North Korean hotel employee insists he must take any photographs with your camera.

A nearby banner proclaims Kim Jong Il -- who presided over the recent nuclear test -- as "the son of the 21st century."

The resort employs some North Koreans, who arrive to work via separate roads that are off limits to tourists. Most act allergic to having their photo taken. Those that interact with tourists closely echo Pyongyang's political line.

One guide told visitors, "The American imperialists' economic sanctions have made us more able to overcome hardship in the future. We should thank them.”

At an experimental North-South joint farm, which aims to supply some of the resort area's food, personnel express pride about the North's nuclear test. "Under economic sanctions and military pressure from the U.S., we withdrew from the NPT. There is no grounds for the U.S. to restrain us from nuclear weapons," said a supervisor.

Despite growing domestic and international criticism of the Kumgang resort as a cash generator for the currency-strapped Pyongyang regime, South Korean supporters say it is central to Seoul's engagement policy to positively and economically influence the North to change its policies and bring it out of international isolation.

The future of the Kumgang project will depend on how South Korea decides to implement United Nations sanctions aimed at punishing the North for its nuclear test.