Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
Kim Jong Un has stopped testing nuclear bombs, at least for now. What he hasn’t stopped is dropping bombshells. His latest – figurative, I hasten to add – has gotten North Korea’s leader where he likes to be. Back in the global media headlines, raising eyebrows, ruffling feathers.
For good measure, he’s also put South Korea on the spot and on the defensive. Result!
On October 23, Kim was reported to have made his first ever known trip to one of the most beautiful places on the peninsula. The Kumgangsan (Diamond Mountain) region on Korea’s east coast has long been famed and hymned for its many peaks, waterfalls, lagoons, and other stunning scenery.
Yet the Supreme Leader didn’t like what he saw, and he let his wrath be known in no uncertain terms. And with him being the Supreme Leader, all of it got written down – by those ubiquitous chaps with notebooks who hang on his every word. You see them in Kim’s entourage wherever he goes, scribbling away furiously as he holds forth.
Furious indeed, on this occasion. A future article will parse Kim’s diatribe in detail, but the criticisms came thick and fast. “Just a hotchpotch with no national character at all … like makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area or isolation wards … very backward in terms of architecture … shabby … awkward-looking … unpleasant-looking”. And much more.
What got Kim’s goat wasn’t the beauties of nature, but man-made ugliness. He was visiting a now disused resort complex, built earlier this century by Hyundai. Yes, that Hyundai. The big South Korean chaebol (conglomerate), better known for making cars and much else. (Though actually that one is now a different Hyundai – whereby hangs a tale.)
We’ll get to that, and the full story, in a future article. Briefly, this joint venture resort was an early fruit of the “sunshine” policy of inter-Korean détente, launched over 20 years ago by Kim Dae-jung.
A long-time democrat and dissident – and eventual Nobel Peace Prize laureate – in December 1997 Kim was narrowly elected ROK President at his fourth attempt, aged 73.
A GAME OF TWO HALVES
The two decades that followed were a game of two halves as regards Mount Kumgang. The first decade was positive. In 1998 Hyundai started running short tours to the area for South Koreans. Initially they travelled by sea, in ships that also doubled as their hotel, since there weren’t the facilities to accommodate them. Not so much a tour as a foray, then, initially.
Later, having won the Northern regime’s trust, Hyundai and other ROK firms were allowed to build hotels and further facilities on land. In 2002 the DPRK formally designated a 530 square kilometer area of Kangwon province as the separately-administered Mount Kumgang Tourist Region. It was this that Kim visited last week. (As usual, KCNA et al didn’t say the actual date of his visit, but presumably it was a day or two before local media reported it on October 23.)
Their long roll-call of the specific facilities Kim inspected shows how the resort had expanded in happier times. Deep breath: “Kim Jong Un looked round Kosong Port, Haegumgang Hotel, House of Culture, Kumgangsan Hotel, Kumgangsan Okryu Restaurant, Kumgang Pension Town, Kuryong Village, Onchon Village, Family Hotel, Onjong Pavilion No. 2, Kosong Port Golf Course, Kosong Port Immigration Office, etc. which were built by the south side …”
In the early years of this century, all had seemed to be going well. Especially after 2003, when the two Koreas opened their first road piercing the hitherto closed Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Instead of slow cramped boats, tourists could now take a much more convenient bus.
The ride was bumpy but short: Mount Kumgang is just 30 km north of the DMZ. From March 2008, amazingly, South Koreans could even drive their own cars across the border into the North.
But not for long. Early on July 11 a middle-aged female tourist, Park Wang-ja, was shot dead after apparently straying into a military area. Pyongyang refused to let Seoul send a team to investigate. So Lee Myung-bak, the conservative President who had taken office earlier that year – and who was not a fan of the sunshine policy – suspended the tours.
And that was that. Eleven years on, tourism remains in limbo, i.e. non-existent – even though in 2017 the South’s political pendulum swung left again. Moon Jae-in, the current President, would gladly revive the Kumgang project. Only he can’t, because his hands are now tied.
Until last week Kim Jong Un, too, wanted this tourism revived – or at least, he said he did. His New Year’s Address was crystal clear, and even generous:
“…We are willing to resume the Kaesong Industrial Park and Mt Kumgang tourism without any precondition and in return for nothing, in consideration of the hard conditions of businesspersons of the south side who had advanced into the Kaesong Industrial Park and the desire of southern compatriots who are eager to visit the nation’s celebrated mountain.”
So it was quite a shock, especially in Seoul, when he now not only blamed South Korea for creating an architectural eyesore, but insisted that Mount Kumgang is “our famous mountain” (ie the DPRK’s) rather than “a common property of the north and the south.”
Lashing out in a different direction, no less shocking was Kim’s direct “ sharp criticism of the very wrong, dependent policy of the predecessors who were going to rely on others when the country was not sufficient [sic] enough.”
Though Party officials were mentioned, this may also implicate his father Kim Jong Il: a potentially unprecedented lèse-majesté.
So this is a big deal on several fronts, raising much to ponder. Future articles in this series will trace the history and significance of the Mount Kumgang project in more depth, including its place in the overall sunshine policy and the key role of Hyundai.
We shall also parse Kim’s remarks in detail, and consider his motives for such a sudden U-turn. How will the new inter-Korean row pan out? Watch this space!
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News. Kim Jong Un has stopped testing nuclear bombs, at least for now. What he hasn’t stopped is dropping bombshells. His latest – figurative, I hasten to add – has gotten North Korea’s leader where he likes to be. Back in the global media headlines, raising eyebrows, ruffling
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.