By Donald Kirk
MT. KUMKANG, North Korea ― An air of desolation hangs over this fabled resort area four years after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a middle-aged South Korean woman who had made the fatal mistake of wandering outside the tourist route to look at the sunrise over the East Sea.
The great square where hordes of South Korean tourists once gathered excitedly to look at the thriving shops, snack in the cafes and enter the domed theater for a performance by North Korean acrobats is almost deserted.
Dozens of buses rest empty and unused in a nearby parking lot. Tourists arrive in small groups from China, but they don't begin to fill the void left by the killing of a woman who your North Korean guide insists had ignored a warning shot while wandering close to a North Korean military installation.
Nothing, however, can disturb the unparalleled majesty of the soaring granitic peaks and spires of Mt. Kumkang, looming beyond the shopping area, as inviting now as it ever was. In fact, a visitor, arriving on a carefully monitored tour from Pyongyang, finds the hike up to the Kuryong waterfalls more appealing than ever if only because almost no one beside the few others in the group, not to mention the omnipresent minders, are competing for space on the trail.
Over the years since I last made the trek, on a bus trip from the South after crossing the North-South line at Sokcho, the walk has gotten somewhat easier. Two or three new aluminum and steel bridges now span the river that that tumbles down from the falls, replacing structures that had a tendency to sway slightly beneath the trade of over-eager visitors, and metal staircases now ascend over rocks over which tourists once clambered on stairs carved out of the stone.
Metal railings guarantee support over some of the harder uphill portions of the trail, and you and others in the group have the final resting place, on a pavilion overlooking the falls, all to yourselves.
For those in need of still more exercise, the hardest portion of the hiking lies ahead ― across the creek and up a trail that's considerably more vertical than horizontal to a rocky peak high above the falls that provides a view of eight ponds formed as the waters poured downstream. On my fourth visit here, I never had a shot at what turned into a rather grueling 45-minute scramble, much of it made somewhat easier by more metal stairs where hikers once had had to rely on ropes. There was no sign that anyone else had made it on the climb above the falls on the day we got there though we did run into half a dozen Chinese tourists on the trail below.
Shockingly, though, there was evidence that others had been there not long before us. Wedged in between the rocks, I saw a plastic trash bag. Nor was that the only sign of desecration of the beauteous trails. Bits of trash glistened beneath the trees here and there ― what had happened to all those warnings that hikers from the South had to heed without fail or risk heavy fines imposed by trail guards on the way?
With no South Koreans to bother, the answer seemed to be that the North Koreans don't want to seem inhospitable or threatening to the few Chinese, and occasional other adventurers, whom they're able to lure to one of Korea's most stupendous natural wonders.
Nowadays, on the way to Kumkang, you see ``volunteers," soldiers, women, students, hunkered over the rusted single-track line leading north to the port of Wonsan and then on to the Russian border or to Pyongyang and China. They're hammering away at rocks for the rail bed, we're told, preparing it for regular rail traffic that we're assured will begin later this month. Surely some modern equipment would help to guarantee ease of movement on the abandoned railway, but there's no sign of modern machinery, just human muscle power.
As for the rail line south from Kumkang, constructed by Hyundai engineers as part of the billion-dollar deal for Hyundai Asan to build the resort, it was never open to traffic at the best of times. The line streaks past the resort area, beyond the green fencing beyond which tourists were told never to venture, a pathetic reminder of the failure to bring about rapprochement even to a tourist destination a few kilometers above the North-South line.
In the duty free-shop, Chinese clerks, hired on short-term contracts by the Hong Kong company that has the franchise, say we're the only shoppers they've seen all day. Business, it seems, ranges from slow to non-existent. But what about those Chinese tourists ― the kind you see in free-spending, talkative packs on Jeju and other likely destinations in South Korea?
The manager from Hong Kong smiles apologetically. The ones who come to Kumkang don't want to spend money, he says. They seem to be poorer than those I'm used to seeing in the South. Eventually, he believes, business will pick up ― but no telling when or even if.
On the trail, though, one sees constant reminders of the kindness and wisdom of the great leaders whose dream was to open up Kumkang to all Koreans and to the rest of the world. Statements and blessings from the late President Kim Il-sung and his son, the late General Kim Jong-il are carved for eternity into the granite.
Somehow, the great successor, whom our guides refer to as ``respected" or "Respected Leader" Kim Jong-un goes unmentioned. When I ask one of the guides why his words are not also carved into the rock faces on the way, the answer is that he's been ``too busy" and hasn't ``had the time" to make the trek. I can't say that I blame him. It's a hard walk, and he might need some conditioning before he attempts it.
I can't help but think, however, that eventually North and South will be able to come to terms on resuming tourism from the South. Won't the next president of South Korea be able to negotiate a solution? My guide seems rather pessimistic. How, one wonders, can one come up with any explanation for the killing of that poor woman that will satisfy both North and South? The idea that perhaps the North Korean guides could have chased after her and pulled her back rather than shoot her does not seem to have been considered ― either at the time or four years later.
Kumkang, though, remains eternal. The luxury hotels may be all but deserted, the spa neglected and partially shut down and the roads in need of repair. The mountains will always be there.
Columnist Donald Kirk has now visited Mount Kumkang four times. His website is www.donaldkirk.com,he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.