Ready to party like its 1998? Way before most western companies were taking tourists to North Korea tourism was very much happening in the country.
Firstly Chinese visitors have frequently visited the country, particularly through Sinuiju. Fun fact Sinuju gets roughly 200,000 visitors a year from China, or at least they used to pre-Covid..
To read about tourism in Sinuiju click here.
But one of the most momentous tourism events to happen for North Korea tourism, as well as inter-Korean relations on the peninsula began when South Korean tourists began to visit the North in 1998 as part of the Sunshine Policy of the era.
What was the Sunshine Policy?
The Sunshine Policy was not all that different to what has intermittently occurred on the Korean peninsula under the current leaders of the Korea’s. It was though the fist time the two nations had really started to cooperate in the modern era. Hence the party like its 1998 moniker, in essence this was the start of the golden period in intra-Korean relations.
Its official title is The Reconciliation and Cooperation Policy Towards the North (Korean: 대북화해협력정책), and it is also known as The Operational Policy Towards the North (Korean: 대북운영정책) and The Embracing Policy (Korean: 포용정책) and was initiated in 1998. It occurred during the Kim Dae-jung administration 1998–2003. The policy resulted in the Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il summit meeting in 2000, the first between the leaders of the two countries since the end of the Korean War.
To read about who won the Korean War click here..
This led to the June 15th Declaration, which stated the following and is still very much respected and celebrated in the DPRK.
“In accordance with the noble will of the entire people who yearn for the peaceful reunification of the nation, President Kim Dae-jung of the Republic of Korea and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea held a historic meeting and summit talks in Pyongyang from June 13 to 15, 2000.
The leaders of the South and the North, recognizing that the meeting and the summit talks were of great significance in promoting mutual understanding, developing South–North relations and realizing peaceful reunification, declared as follows:
The South and the North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country.
For the achievement of reunification, we have agreed that there is a common element in the South’s concept of a confederation and the North’s formula for a loose form of federation. The South and the North agreed to promote reunification in that direction.
The South and the North have agreed to promptly resolve humanitarian issues such as exchange visits by separated family members and relatives on the occasion of the August 15 National Liberation Day and the question of unswerving Communists serving prison sentences in the South.
The South and the North have agreed to consolidate mutual trust by promoting balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and by stimulating cooperation and exchanges in civic, cultural, sports, health, environmental and all other fields.
The South and the North have agreed to hold a dialogue between relevant authorities in the near future to implement the above agreements expeditiously.
President Kim Dae-jung cordially invited National Defence Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il to visit Seoul, and Chairman Kim Jong-il will visit Seoul at an appropriate time.
(signed) Kim Dae-jung, President, The Republic of Korea
(signed) Kim Jong-il, Chairman of the National Defence Commission, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”
Start of tourism to Mt Kumgang
Why party like its 1998? This was when tourism to the region forest began, initially by cruise ship and then by special road built between the DMZ, but what they really needed was a big resort and infrastructure, but who would pay for that?
Paying for the Mt Kumgang Resort
While the problems of the end of the Eastern Bloc and its affect on the economy of the DPRK are well known, it should also be remembered that this was not a great time financially for South Korea either. The Asian financial crisis had hit coffers hard, so if people wanted to party like it was 1998, then someone had to pay, enter Hyundai stage left.
Hyundai might be most famous for cars, but as their owner put it they have built everything from “ships to chips” Chung Ju-yung (the founder) not only spearheaded the and paid for the drive, but also led the first voyage across the border, driving 500 cattle over the border. In cars you understand…..
By 2002, the area around the mountain was separated from Kangwon Province and organized as a separately administered “Tourist Region”, covering 530 square km. Hyundai was given a 30 year exclusive deal and things worked well for both Korea’s and Hyundai.
In essence what was built was like a mini-South Korea in the North, with ATM’s, hotels, Karaoke and roads, very good roads. It also provided cash and employment to the DPRK and its citizens.
No more party like its 1998 – ending of the Mt Kumgang Resort
In 2008 a South Korean citizen was shot under controversial circumstances. The DPRK insist she was in a military area and that she was running and did not heed warnings to stop. The south asked for a joint-enquiry, one did not occur, so the ROK banned tourism.
This resulted in a tense stand-off and eventually the DPRK re-taking over the resort.
The Mt Kumgang Resort being run by the DPRK
Not wanting to waste hotels and infrastructure the North Koreans took it over and bagel to use it for tourism again. I was once lucky enough to visit during this period and the hotel was a bizarre experience. The hotel was very much still deluxe, but ran by the DPRK. There were ATM’s still there, but empty and an overall eerie feel. The only thing comparable I have seen was at the Hotel Alba in Venezuela, which had previously been the Hilton.
To check our next tour to Venezuela click here.
In the end though the facilities were underutilized, which has since drawn the ire of the DPRK leadership, particularly with regards to the “floating hotel”.
The hope is still that one day things might get back to normal and many certainly feel that is why places like Masik were built, but for now at least it represents a bygone era, particularly with regards to Covid right now.
Will we once again be able to party like its 1998 in Korea? We hope so….