North Korea is moving closer to attracting tourists from China and the U.S. after it seized South Korean property in the scenic Mt. Kumgang resort. On Tuesday, a passenger ferry left Rajin Port for Mt. Kumgang carrying international tourists. One U.S. travel agency specializing in North Korea launched a tour package using the Kumgangsan Hotel that belongs to South Korean tour operator Hyundai Asan.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday claimed investors, officials and reporters from the U.S., Japan, China, Russia and Europe left Rajin Port on the ferry for a test run of a tour of the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone and Mt. Kumgang. The ferry was originally used to ship Korean-Japanese to North Korea.
"The five-day tour leaves from Rajin-Sonbong, cruises the East Sea on the Mangyongbong ferry, and arrives at Mt. Kumgang for a tour of the world-famous scenery that includes the Kuryong pond, Samil lagoon, and the Haekum River," KCNA said. Representatives of three northeastern Chinese provinces in, reporters from AP in the U.S., Russia's ITAR-TASS, Britain's Reuters, China's Global Times, Japan's Asahi Shimbun, and Hong Kong's Phoenix TV were reportedly on the boat.
On the same day, Asia Pacific Travel in Illinois, U.S. launched a four-day travel package to Mt. Kumgang as part of its 2012 tour program, according to Voice of America. It includes a stay at Hyundai Asan's Kumgangsan Hotel.
The hotel is among South Korean properties the North declared it is going to dispose of last week, when it expelled South Korean maintenance staff. In the past, the Kumgangsan Hotel was not open to international tourists, so foreigners who were visiting Mt. Kumgang through American or Chinese travel agencies had to stay in nearby Wonsan.
The South Korean government says renting out the Kumgangsan Hotel to foreign travel agencies is unacceptable because it violates inter-Korean agreements and infringes South Korean property rights. A special team from the unification and foreign ministries is discussing how to deal with this matter, a government official said.
"If North Korea tries to operate tours using South Korean properties, we can urge countries around the world to refrain from taking the tours," the official added. But in reality there is no way of stopping the North from doing what it wants.
Some experts suggest demanding compensation under international law, but others argue that this could play against the South, since it was Seoul that halted the tours to Mt. Kumgang.