Why does Mount Kumgang matter? And why is a lapsed tourism project, once the emblem par excellence of inter-Korean cooperation, now a source of strife between the two Koreas?
This article is the third – or perhaps 2.5th – in a series. You might want to read the other two before this one, if you haven’t already done so, for a better sense of the overall picture.
We began with an overview of the new row which put Mount Kumgang in the headlines and back on the inter-Korean political agenda. This was occasioned by Kim Jong Un visiting the decaying site last month, basically saying “Yuk!” and virtually ordering it all to be torn down.
Then, as a slight excursus, NK News kindly reprinted a piece I wrote way back in 1986 about my visit to Mount Kumgang that year – and to nearby Mount Seorak in South Korea a few years before. I hope this conveyed something of what the ‘Diamond Mountain’ means to Koreans.
Building on those, the article you’re now reading looks at the specific circumstances in which, 20 years ago, one of Korea’s most famous and beautiful scenic spots – off-limits to South Koreans since the peninsula was partitioned in 1945 – became the key pilot project for an unprecedented experiment in inter-Korean co-operation.
The second part will profile the businessman who became the rather unlikely midwife of this venture.
Note the past tense, by the way. Despite the fond hopes of the current ROK government, in my view this is strictly history: a past without a future. Mount Kumgang tourism, as a North-South joint venture, is now as dead as Park Wang-ja: the middle-aged woman whose murder at the mountain resort in 2008 – shot from behind, it appears – effectively killed the project too.
But this is to run ahead of ourselves. We’ll get to that tragic ending later in this series.
FOURTH TIME LUCKY
First, cast your mind back to happier times. Happier not economically but politically, at least for South Korea’s liberals. Party like it’s 1998!
Kim Dae-jung, the veteran ROK democrat and dissident, who survived two attempts on his life, had just been elected as president in December 1997 – in his fourth attempt at the top office (he’d even ‘retired’, briefly, after his third defeat).
You’d think he would have had his hands full at home. The 1997 Asian financial crisis, most ineptly handled by Kim’s predecessor and rival Kim Young-sam, meant that ‘DJ’ inherited an almost bankrupt economy – saved by a $57 billion bail-out from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), its largest ever at that time.
Public finances had to be put on a sound footing. The chaebol needed sorting out (when don’t they?). Many sectors required restructuring.
DJ tackled all of that. Critics bleated about ‘neoliberalism’ – but what was the alternative? South Korea was broken, and broke. The economy needed fixing. Kim Dae-jung fixed it.
That was a job and a half. Yet simultaneously, Kim also found time and energy to pursue his long-cherished wider dream: a startling new policy of reconciliation with North Korea.
Maybe you had to have lived through the dark days of military dictatorship and the Cold War – searingly hot in Korea, never forget – to appreciate just how radical this idea was. True, the two Koreas had met and talked before, sporadically. But nothing lasting had ever come of it.
Despite the fond hopes of the current ROK government, in my view this is strictly history: a past without a future
DJ’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ sought a wholly new relationship: replacing mortal enmity by win-win cooperation (the term sunshine was taken from an Aesop fable, as I’m sure you know).
For South Korean conservatives, this approach was not merely unthinkable but treasonable. Indeed some still regard it as such – and say so, raucously and often, on the streets of Seoul.
Legally, these critics may actually have a point. The ROK’s draconian National Security Act (NSA), still on the statute book, is very broadly defined.
If so minded, a lot that was done under the Sunshine Policy could be construed as actions benefiting the enemy. This was just one of Sunshine’s ironies and (arguably) contradictions.
Bracketing all that, in 1998 the challenge facing Kim Dae Jung was how to get started. What olive branch could South Korea offer, concretely, to appeal to and tempt North Korea?
Pyongyang was bound to be suspicious, both a priori and after previous false dawns had led nowhere. Also, DJ wasn’t the only Kim preoccupied with his domestic economy at that point.
Kim Jong Il too was confronting problems in that department – on a scale that dwarfed DJ’s.
Crises are relative, nowhere more so than in divided Korea. What many in Seoul perversely call “the IMF crisis” – as if the doctor were the disease – certainly caused hardship to many.
But what some South Koreans suffered pales beside their Northern kinsfolk. Losing your job and livelihood is tragic and life-changing – but it isn’t life-ending.
In North Korea up to a million people, maybe more, actually died of starvation during the terrible famine of 1995-98.
It is moot whether that crisis rendered the DPRK more open to offers, from sheer desperation, or conversely more suspicious because the regime felt vulnerable. This was the highly specific politico-economic context in which the Sunshine Policy was launched.
COMETH THE HOUR, COMETH THE MAN
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And no, I don’t mean either of the two leader Kims.
To get the Sunshine show on the road needed someone else as well. A third party, possessing additional assets. Money, for a start – which both Korean governments were pretty short of at that point. But also personal qualities: huge drive, energy, and motivation.
Enter Chung Ju-yung. ‘Larger than life’ hardly does justice to the legendary founder of the Hyundai group. Born a poor peasant in 1915 in northern Korea – when the peninsula was Japanese-ruled, but not yet sundered – he went on to build a world-class company and brand.
How he did it is an epic tale, well worth reading. My obituary gives a summary and flavor of this colorful and contentious figure: part genius, part monster.
For the full story see Donald Kirk’s 1994 book on Chung Ju-yung and Hyundai, still available (this of course predates the Sunshine Era and the Mount Kumgang project, our subject here).
By the 1990s Chung Ju-yung, though nearing 80, was in no mood to slow down. Indeed, he harbored wider ambitions.
Having built up his companies – 86 of them, “from ships to chips” – he now decided business was too small a stage. Politics beckoned. His country needed him.
But his country had other ideas. When Chung created a Reunification National Party and ran for President in 1992, he got a mere 16% of the vote — well behind both Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. For a while, Hyundai was punished by being denied government contracts.
In 1997 Kim Dae-jung succeeded Kim Young-sam, and Chung saw his chance. A nationalist as well as a businessman, and visionary on both fronts, he had already checked out North Korea almost a decade earlier.
Visiting Pyongyang in 1989, where he met Kim Il Sung, Chung mooted the idea of a trans-Korea pipeline bringing natural gas from Siberia to South Korea via the North.
Thirty years later this eminently sensible and practical win-win idea still remains unrealized, despite hopes being raised in what turned out to be a false dawn in 2011. What a wasted opportunity.
Chung also floated the idea of Mount Kumgang tourism, but the Great Leader was apparently suspicious of him. But by 1998, with new Kims running both Koreas, his time was finally ripe.
A LOAD OF BULL
In June 1998 Chung Ju-yung pulled a spectacular stunt, made for media: He drove 500 cattle across the DMZ. That’s driving as in trucks – 50 of them – rather than Rawhide and yee-haw. Loose cows wandering in the heavily mined inter-Korean border? Maybe not.
Besides, at 83 Chung was now too frail to be a cowboy. Supported by carers, he became the first South Korean civilian to cross the border with no official escort since partition in 1945.
This gesture was touted as Chung’s belated recompense for a cow he stole from his father and sold to finance his escape to Seoul to seek his fortune, decades earlier.
The cattle were given to his home village of Asan in Tongchon County of Kangwon Province: on the east coast south of Wonsan, on the road to and not that far from – you guessed it – Mount Kumgang.
The latter was the real focus of Chung’s week-long trip. But intriguingly, he wasn’t the only Northern-born businessman to seek to promote Southern tourism there.
A rival almost beat him to it: Sun Myung-soon, founder of the Unification Church (UC, aka ‘Moonies’).
According to Michael Breen in his book on Kim Jong Il, in 1991 Kim Il Sung granted to Sun what he had denied to Chung. Plans to develop the Mount Kumgang area – these included a light industry complex, interestingly – were drawn up. They even built a model.
But it never happened. Breen cites three reasons: 1) The then-ROK government wouldn’t allow Southern tourists to go North. 2) The DPRK military wasn’t happy, on security grounds. 3) And then the UC got into debt (the church nonetheless became a major investor in the North Korean economy, founding Pyonghwa Motors and buying Pyongyang’s Potonggang Hotel).
But not Mount Kumgang. Local lad Chung nabbed that one. Not that it was plain sailing, far from it. When some of the cows sickened and died, North Korea cried foul. And how. Oh boy.
For gold-plated plumb-crazy Pyongyang paranoia – dare I say bullsh**? – this takes some beating. Guess who they blamed? Not only the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP) – forerunner of today’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), the ROK spy agency – but even the Ministry of Unification.
Take a moment to read and enjoy, or shake your head in disbelief. Here’s a small sample:
“The anatomy of the relevant experts proved that the stomaches of the dead oxen had been filled with vinyl stripes and lumps of hemp ropes which cannot be seen in the DPRK, that the oxen had been forced to be fed with the impure substance in South Korea before sending them… We have already secured enough material evidence… The ultra-right wing anti-communist fanatics of South Korea used even oxen for their dirty anti-DPRK campaign.”
So poor (well not that poor, fortunately) old Chung Ju-yung had to do it all again. On October 27 he crossed the DMZ once more, bringing 501 cattle. Not so much Groundhog Day as Moo-cow Day.
Honor was restored; the North said it had all been a misunderstanding. This time Chung traveled on to Pyongyang, where he met Kim Jong Il. That was the green light.
Barely two weeks later, on November 14, a Hyundai ship carrying 441 tourists left the ROK port of Donghae, sailed 105 miles up the coast – that took 12 hours – and docked at a harbor near Kumgang. The vessel doubled as a hotel for the five-day trip. History had been made.
Thus began a decade of inter-Korean tourism – strictly one way, needless to add. Our next article will assess this experience.
In anticipation, let’s just say that Hyundai and Chung Ju-yung – and his family – paid a high price, in more ways than one, for their commitment to overcoming Korea’s post-1945 division.
Was the game worth the candle? Watch this space.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: DPRK Today
Why does Mount Kumgang matter? And why is a lapsed tourism project, once the emblem par excellence of inter-Korean cooperation, now a source of strife between the two Koreas?This article is the third – or perhaps 2.5th – in a series. You might want to read the other two before this one, if you haven’t already done so, for a better sense of the overall picture.We began with an
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.