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One tiny crack in the border

Special to The Times

“WHEN I was in North Korea last year ...,” I began, over dim sum one recent Sunday afternoon with a professor friend, a sophisticated Manhattanite.

“You’ve been to North Korea?” he interrupted. “Anyone can go,” I told him. “It’s a tour.”

While living in Seoul last year, I learned that a division of the South Korean mega-conglomerate Hyundai has been operating tours to Mt. Kumgang from South Korea since 1998. Considered the most beautiful mountain range on the Korean peninsula, Mt. Kumgang has been immortalized for centuries in poetry, art and song.

Before the Mt. Kumgang tour, South Koreans had been unable to travel north of the demilitarized zone -- at least it was legally barred. The DMZ, established in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, sliced Korea in two, leading to the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, in the north. The 2 1/2 -mile-wide DMZ sealed off the border between the two Koreas. To this day, tensions remain. Just last week, North Korea vowed to go ahead with a nuclear test, to the increasing dismay of world leaders.

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But for Americans, to whom North Korea rarely, if ever, grants tourist visas (though it does to other foreigners), the tour offers one way to get inside the Communist country.

“Let’s go!” I said to a South Korean photographer friend and colleague after I learned of the tours.

“No way. It’s just a tourist trap,” he scoffed. “I heard they monitor everything, and you can’t go anywhere on your own. It’s not like you see the real North Korea or meet any regular North Koreans.”

“That’s all part of the charm of going to a totalitarian country,” I said, trying to persuade him. “Don’t you want to see what it’s all about?”

In the end, he did. Who wouldn’t want to peek inside one of the most politically isolated countries in the world?

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Papers in order

TO go on the trip, we filled out simple registration forms and submitted copies of our passports and photographs to the tour agency. A couple of days later, our reservations were confirmed, and we submitted payment in South Korean won, equivalent to about $350 per person for the two-night, three-day trip. (For visa information, contact North Korea’s United Nations office, [212] 972-3105.)

On a wintry February morning, we assembled at a meeting point 100 miles northeast of Seoul and received identification cards that we were to wear at all times.

Mobile phones, high-powered camera lenses and South Korean magazines were among the items not allowed into North Korea. The tour included journalists (two Germans and a South Korean), the photographer I was traveling with and about 100 South Korean tourists.

Some of the tourists came to sightsee, but I suspect more came for the opportunity to set foot on northern soil.

We drove through the DMZ -- the idea of it turned out to be more thrilling than the actual act -- escorted by South Korean military. We passed vast dirt fields marked by occasional shrubs, trees and tunnels. Our tour guide warned us not to take any pictures.

At the military demarcation line our tour bus stopped. Two North Korean soldiers boarded. As one soldier stood guard at the front of the bus, the other strolled down the aisle, counting heads as he went. Once the soldiers left the bus, we were allowed to continue.

Whereas the south was highly industrialized and modern, the north looked like the land that time forgot. Civilians were walking, riding bicycles and pushing wheelbarrows. Other than the occasional military truck, there were no vehicles. Tattered pieces of cloth covered cracked and broken windows in abandoned-looking houses with worn roofs and crumbling tiles.

I saw the first of many carvings that marred the smooth surfaces of towering mountains in and around Mt. Kumgang. Etched in large Korean and Chinese characters, the signs touted the leadership of former Chairman Kim Il-Sung and current leader Kim Jong II.

Once at the mountain resort, we lined up to clear immigration. The North Korean official gave my American passport and Korean face a quizzical look. Maybe he had never met a Korean American.

“How safe is the tour?” I asked Young Sil Jung, a Hyundai Asan tour guide.

“It’s very safe,” she said. “It’s like South Korea.”

Indeed. It felt more like I was at a South Korean resort -- maybe because I essentially was.

Hyundai Asan had developed a resort consisting of a hotel (a second has since opened), cozy wooden cabins, a hot springs spa and a rest area where frenetic South Korean pop music blared from loudspeakers in the parking lot.

There was a Family Mart (a South Korean chain of convenience stores akin to 7-Eleven). A sprawling shop sold North Korean souvenirs, the most popular being whiskey (purportedly made from snakes) and cigarettes “made in D.P.R.K.”

There was even a Hyundai duty-free shop selling Ferragamo, Chanel and Prada, among other luxury brands. At the restaurant, an all-you-can-eat buffet featured warming pans piled high with seasoned beef, shrimp, sauteed vegetables and tofu, noodles and steamed rice.

There was no hint that we were in one of the poorest, most oppressed countries in the world, and the scene in the hotel lobby, where a Filipino band sang American pop songs, bumped us into the realm of the surreal.

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Trail ‘guides’

AS we headed out the next morning for our first day of hiking, our tour guide warned us not to take unauthorized photos, especially of North Korean guides, who were more like minders who kept close watch over us. Male and female guides monitored the trails to ensure tourists did not litter or show disrespect to the many monuments to father and son.

As I walked along Guryongyeon trail, an easy hike over gently ascending terrain, the North Korean guides chatted amiably with the South Koreans. I met a 68-year-old South Korean man, just a boy when Korea was divided, who had wanted his whole life to see the beauty of Mt. Kumgang. When I asked him how he felt, he replied, “There are no words.”

I could see what he meant. Mt. Kumgang was impressive with its great, hulking mountains and tall, craggy peaks. At Bibong Falls, South Korean ice climbers looked like ants scaling a towering waterfall that had been transformed into a wall of sheer ice.

At the bottom of the mountain, North Koreans sold roasted potatoes and fermented rice wine to the tourists for $1 each, accepting only American dollars. “They know the smell of money now,” said Ha Jung Byun, a senior manager with Hyundai Asan.

North Koreans were selling more local products at nearby Samilpo Lake. In a large, windowed room overlooking the frozen lake, women sold steamed mussels and potato pancakes, as well as North Korean calendars and cigarettes.

The next day, we hiked Manmulsang trail, known for its thousands of interesting rock formations. It’s a rigorous hike but worth it. The scope of the surrounding rugged peaks and the steep gorges and valleys were magnificent.

At the base of the trail, I met a director of the North Korean guides. He peppered me with questions about American politics and criticized the United States, saying that the “imperialist country” needed to stay out of North-South Korea relations.

I was curious how he felt about American tourists. He replied that he welcomed Americans and all foreigners to come view the beauty of Mt. Kumgang and meet North Koreans. On the way back, the Hyundai Asan guide pointed out dirt fields where the company planned to build a beach resort and golf course. Why anyone would want to go on the tour to North Korea to lie on a man-made beach or play golf was beyond me. The real merit of this tour was the sliver of Communist life I had seen on the way to the mountain resort and meeting some real North Koreans.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Just past the DMZ

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Korean Airways and Asiana offer nonstop service to Seoul. All Nippon Airways, Northwest, JAL and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $939.

The meeting point for the tour is at a hotel called Kumgangsan Condo, about 100 miles northeast of Seoul. Round-trip charter bus service from Seoul is available to the meeting spot for $30. The bus trip takes about four hours.

TELEPHONES:

To call the South Korean numbers listed below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code) and 82 (country code for South Korea), followed by the number.

WHERE TO STAY:

JW Marriott Hotel Seoul, 19-3, Banpo-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul; (888) 236-2427, www.marriott.com. An upscale, luxury hotel in central Seoul near shopping and business districts. Doubles begin at about $225.

Ibis Seoul, 893-1, Daechi-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; 2-3011-8888; www.ambatel.com. A new hotel offering simple yet good-quality accommodations for the budget-conscious traveler. Doubles begin at $90.

BEFORE YOU GO:

To go on the Mt. Kumgang tour, visitors must register with a travel agency and provide the requisite documentation at least 10 days before the desired departure date. In Los Angeles, Smile Tour, (213) 365-2100, provides booking and other tour information. Hyundai Asan also provides information in English; call 2-3669-3691.

TOUR PRICES:

Hyundai Asan offers two-night, three-day packages starting at $290 (all prices are per person based on double occupancy), depending on the season and level of accommodations. The price includes lodging, breakfast, entrance and departure immigration fees, and hiking-related fees. Shorter trips are also available.

TO LEARN MORE:

Korea National Tourism Organization, (800) 868-7567 or (323) 634-0280, www.tour2korea.com.

-- Helen E. Sung


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