A day after South Korea proposed a meeting on the Mount Kumgang issue on Oct. 28, North Korea responded in the negative. North Korea reportedly maintained that there was no need for a face-to-face meeting, and that the two Koreas could reach an agreement through the exchange of messages. It is clear from North Korea’s rejoinder that it has no intention of participating in a meeting.
With North Korea adopting an openly uncooperative stance, the possibility of finding a “creative solution” to the Mount Kumgang problem is growing faint. It is difficult to ascertain how many more messages will be exchanged on this topic, but regardless of whether the two Koreas reach an agreement, it seems likely that North Korea will proceed with the removal of the South Korean facilities on Mount Kumgang.
This push to remove the South Korean facilities from Mount Kumgang is the result of orders of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. On a recent on-the-spot visit to Mount Kumgang, Kim Jong Un gave detailed orders for the independent, self-reliant development of Mount Kumgang. Kim ordered the construction of an airfield near Mount Kumgang, as well as a train route from the tourist zone to the airfield, and even ordered the construction of a golf course and a ski slope. The idea behind these orders seems to be that, even after a closure of 11 years, if the old South Korean facilities at Mount Kumgang are removed and North Korea constructs a new tourist complex, it will be able to attract many foreign tourists.
HOW ATTRACTIVE IS MOUNT KUMGANG AS A TOURIST DESTINATION?
However, North Korea must dispassionately consider whether constructing new facilities at Mount Kumgang will be enough to attract crowds of tourists. That is, it must objectively evaluate whether Mount Kumgang is so beautiful and worthy of note on a global level that it can appeal to overseas tourists.
Mount Kumgang is certainly celebrated by the Korean people. But its significance to Koreans does not necessarily make Mount Kumgang a global tourist destination. Given that the world is full of majestic and noteworthy destinations, would overseas visitors really seek out Mount Kumgang in particular?
When Hyundai Asan was managing tourism on Mount Kumgang, the mountain received a large volume of visitors: 1.93 million. However, North Korea is mistaken if it assumes that these visitors came to Mount Kumgang because of its qualities as a superior tourist destination.
When Mount Kumgang was open for tourism, it was the one area of North Korea that ordinary South Koreans were able to visit. Some South Korean visitors were curious, while others were originally from North Korea, were thinking about the home they’d left. With Korea split into North and South, all South Koreans harbor at least some desire to see the North.
It is also important to note that amid the 1.93 million tourists, non-Koreans only amounted to 12,000 people. Moreover, the majority of these non-Koreans were not tourists who had specifically sought out Mount Kumgang, but foreigners who had been residing in South Korea at the time. That is, they had ended up on a trip to North Korea as part of a group or with their friends in South Korea. From all of the above, it is clear that Mount Kumgang does not have innate appeal for foreign tourists. Without South Koreans, Mount Kumgang tourism does not make much business sense.
CREATING THE RIGHT CONDITIONS FOR FOREIGN TOURISTS
North Korea claims that it will pursue the development of Mount Kumgang as a tourist destination on its own. Even if it succeeds in mobilizing soldiers for the construction, the question of how many tourists will then visit remains. Although North Korea seems to be targeting Chinese tourists, with so many travel destinations within China, it is doubtful whether there will be many Chinese travelers who go out of their way to North Korea to see Mount Kumgang.
Moreover, non-Chinese tourists must accept a certain level of danger when traveling in North Korea, and acknowledge the ever-present possibility that they could be detained under some pretext. It is questionable whether many foreign tourists would opt for North Korea and its dangers when they are on a paid vacation looking to relax.
If North Korea truly wishes to reopen Mount Kumgang for tourism again, it must create the right conditions for a tourist industry, rather than threatening the removal of the South Korean facilities and pressuring Hyundai Asan. North Korea can save tourism on Mount Kumgang by actively participating in denuclearization negotiations to lift sanctions, and by creating opportunities for Hyundai Asan to resume business in North Korea. The way forward is clear.
*Translated by Violet Kim
Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.
Ahn Jong Sik’s views on Mount Kumgang were recently featured in a commentary on The Diplomat.