Saturday, March 3, 2012

North Korea: the happiest place on Earth?

In 1998, the DPRK and South Korea reached an agreement to allow tourism from the South into the Mount Kumgang region of the North, a place long famed for its scenic beauty. To that end, a joint venture was undertaken: the construction of the Diamond Mountain Resort in the region. The resort was intended to be a luxury destination with all of the usual expected amenities, including a golf course, various water sports, spas, and the like. The actual construction and operation of the resort fell to South Korea's Hyundai Group.

To handle this project and other work in the DPRK, Hyundai Asan was spun off from the Hyundai Group, proper, in 1999. Hyundai Asan's brief history is filled with deals falling apart (due to arbitrary actions by the DPRK), accusations of corruption and bribery, and failed projects. But the Diamond Mountain Resort is at the top--or rather the bottom--of the heap.

According to Bloomberg, the Hyundai Asan has spent over $427 million on the resort. From 1998 to 2008, the resort drew nearly two million visitors from South Korea. But it all came to an horrific end in 2008, as a 53 year-old South Korean tourist was shot to death by North Korean soldiers for allegedly entering a restricted area:
Park was shot twice from behind, hospital official Cho Yong-seok said. One bullet hit her in the chest, causing her death, and another shot struck her left hip, he said.
Rough neighborhood, that. Shortly thereafter, South Korea barred visits to the Kumgang Region by its citizens. Predictably, the DPRK leadership threatened the South if the tourism ban was not lifted immediately. It began seizing assets in the region owned by the South. Then in 2011, the DPRK simply seized all of the assets that were left, be they owned by the South Korean government or by Hyundai Asan:
The seizure announcement came via the North's state news agency. 
"We consider that the South has completely given up all rights on properties owned by South Korean companies and now start legal disposal of them," KCNA said in a statement. 
It said assets such as real estate, equipment and vehicles would be considered abandoned and disposed of. 
No property could be taken from the site and South Korean personnel there had 72 hours to leave, it added.
By "legal disposal," the DPRK apparently means it will simply assume ownership, no paperwork required. Hyundai Asan--despite its apparent payoffs to the DPRK--is just out everything, at this point in time. And due to other ventures in the North, it is in a very precarious position.

The DPRK has now decided that it has waited long enough and is seeking to re-open the resort, hoping it will provide a desperately needed revenue stream. But with South Korean tourists unavailable, it is instead hoping to lure wealthy tourists from elsewhere, including the U.S. From the Bloomberg piece, above:
Cash-starved North Korea has hired an American company to help it revive a shuttered luxury resort and attract tourists, a plan that has raised objections from Seoul. 
Korea Pyongyang Trading USA, a New York-based liquor importer, is working on a plan to attract travelers to Mount Geumgang on the east coast of North Korea, a country the U.S. State Department permits Americans to visit while warning it has a history of arbitrarily arresting foreigners. 
Simon T. Bai, 67, director of marketing and planning for Korea Pyongyang, said the company wants Americans to visit North Korea to give the nation exposure to freedom and democracy. The company was hired in July to study opening a casino at Geumgang, according to documents it submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice in December under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Maybe it's just me, but North Korea is the absolute last place I would want to visit for a little casino action. If--somehow--I won big, I might be rewarded with a trip to a sealed room and a game of "dunk the Yankee." But then, I'd assume all the games would be rigged, to begin with, so I can't imagine that anyone could actually win.

That said, the region really is breathtaking:

Who wouldn't want to spend some time there? Plus, the novelty of the experience is a major draw.

But at what cost? Feeding a totalitarian regime cash, enabling the continued oppression of its people? Sorry, no, I'm not having any. I'll give my dollars to the Mouse, first. He may be a greedy SOB and a corporate bully, but at least he won't torture his employees, starve them, then shoot me in the back. Literally.

Cheers, all.


  1. Gee, this reminds me of something... something to do with trains and a copper mine, IIRC. Where'd I read that??

  2. I clicked in half expecting to here they HAD signed a deal with the Mouse.

    1. Well, there are some great opportunities for ride names:

      Mr. Il's Wild Ride, Starvation Mountain, It's a Poor World, etc. :)