Leaving Wonsan, unlike most visitors who return west to Pyongyang or head north to Hamhung, we took the coastal road south to the Mt Kumgang region. This mountainous region borders with South Korea along the infamous demilitarised zone (DMZ) which is ironically one of, if not, the most militarised areas in the world. Tourist access to the DMZ on this side of the country is not possible.
Rather than being a single mountain, Mt Kumgang (which means Diamond Mountain) is range of stunning mountain peaks punctuated with equally stunning river valleys, cascades and waterfalls. The highest peak in the range is Mt Birobong at 1,638 metres though many more come close to this giving credibility to references to Mt Kumgang being ‘the thousand peak mountain’.
While few visitors to North Korea will experience this mountainous area first hand they will see murals and pictures of it, typically in hotels and restaurants, right across the country.
Not surprisingly our hotel at Mt Kumgang was the pièce de résistance when it came to murals depicting the mountains.
I have got ahead of myself.
For a significant part of our three hour trip to Mt Kumgang we skirted the Korean East Sea (or the Sea of Japan for non-Koreans) with gorgeous views out to sea, in addition to the more general village and agricultural scenery we had experienced on our trip from Hamhung to Wonsan. Naturally, there were also decent smattering of political murals along the way to keep aficionados content.
After about an hour we pulled into the Lake Sijung Guesthouse for a short break, with sufficient time for a quick walk along the beautiful beach on which the guesthouse is situated.
The beach is popular with locals and a number of them were enjoying it when we visited.
We also had just about enough time for a ‘coffee’, or more specifically, some ghastly imported instant ‘coffee’ powder with sweetener and milk powder pre-added, which took an eternity to get as we waited on the single kettle to boil, once they had managed to coax the electricity supply into action! Those more intelligent than me opted for a cold Coke or Pepsi (readily available here, as elsewhere, and obviously also imported, notwithstanding US lead sanctions) or a cold canned coffee, one brand of which I particularly liked. That morning I had the urge for a hot drink, however.
In my introductory review on Wonsan I referred to Lake Sijung in reference to Kim Jong-un’s multi-billion dollar plan to transform the Wonsan and Mt Kumgang areas (formally the Wonsan Special Tourist Zone as launched in 2015) into an international tourist destination, aimed primarily at South Koreans and Chinese high rollers.
I mentioned that, in addition to catering to foreign tourists, special retreats have been built here for the staff of three organisations, among others, which are especially close to the Leadership’s hearts as they are crucial to keeping it in foreign exchange and in keeping an eye out for internal subversion. These organisations are the Daesong General Bureau (Office 39 which procures luxury goods for the Kim family), the Korean National Insurance Corporation (allegedly – by the EU – involved in insurance fraud) and the State Security Department or “Bowibu” (the entity which runs prison camps and conducts nationwide surveillance of citizens).
These retreats are just to the south of where we stopped and have their own beach so fear not, should you visit, as holidaying officers of Office 39 are highly unlikely to be patrolling the Guesthouse beach with a view to procuring you (obviously a luxury item!) for the Kim family and, assuming you have been behaving, Bowibu officers will be even less interested in you.
Not dwelling on this small area too much (in fact it was not referred to by our guides at all – but then again it’s not a tourist site!) we carried on southwards.
And, below, another coastal shot – an artistic shot by yours truly. Actually, in all honesty I have no recollection of taking this shot and I certainly did not knowingly adjust any camera setting… so in reality an accident. It does remind be somewhat of the style used in many North Korean landscape paintings.
Moving on towards Mt Kumgang
As we travelled south one thing especially stood out for me (I notice this sort of thing more than others!) and that is that right along the coastline, probably just above the high water line, there was a barbed wire fence, separating land from sea. The fence, for the most part, was in a poor state of repair and clearly rather old. Naturally the first thing that came to my mind was that it was there to stop a beach invasion but in reality this flimsy fence would not be up to even momentarily delaying any form of amphibious landing.
I asked our guide why the fence was here and was told that it was to stop children from wandering off across the beach and getting drowned in the sea.
I suspect the real story is that, modest though it was in most parts, it signified that the beach was out of bounds to everyone, particularly those intent on launching a boat and defecting to South Korea, only a short distance to the south. While clearly the quality of fence itself would not stop anyone passing through the fact that it exists at all and that there is a rule in place prohibiting passage is enough to deter all but the most determined would be defector and to use a 2020 term – there ain’t that many entitled Karens in North Korea! I suspect that the quality of the fence would have increased further south as it approached the border though don’t know as we turned inland about eighteen kilometres north of the border. It is worth noting that there it a rather more formidable looking fence along the coast, for some distance, on the South Korean side of the border, aimed at at least delaying an invasion by northern forces, as opposed to stopping defectors.
Speaking of barbed wire fences and security, as we made our way south there was a marked increase in the number of security checks along the road. As I have mentioned elsewhere these checks present no issue for foreign tour groups, the passage of which will have been pre-arranged. We did however have to stop at most of the posts as the credentials of local staff (driver and guides) have to be verified… this typically took seconds only. Photography is strictly prohibited at North Korean military checkpoints, as it is at similar installations anywhere.
Lest anyone think that the good people in this south eastern part of the country were left out when it came to distributing murals of the leaders and other messaging –
At some point – I cannot remember exactly where – but certainly some distance north of the city of Chanjon all photography from the bus was banned (without specific permission having been sought and received) until we veered off into the mountains, where it could resume. Sadly, at least a couple of our group, seated in the back seat of the bus and out of line of sight of our guides, decided that the rule did not apply to them. When we pulled over at a checkpoint just south of Chanjon the cursory checking of the guides’ credentials seemed to take longer than usual and when our guide returned to the bus he was accompanied by a couple of soldiers who, with the guide, made their way to the back of the bus and identified two of the group and then proceeded to go through photos taken by them – insisting that many were deleted.
Our two erstwhile photographers did not count on people outside the bus (seeing photos being taken) getting a message to the checkpoint, prior to our arrival there!
Everyone on the bus was asked to delete all photos taken from a specific point along our route. As most people, including me, had complied with the earlier request this presented no problem but what did irk the innocent was that the photography ban was now extended until we reached our hotel – with no exemptions permitted. As it turned out we did not miss to much photo-wise as the road up the the hotel was very winding and the mountains to close for photography in any case.
The photo below is the only one I took in the restricted area, before the checkpoint. Relevant permission was sought and received.
In less than half an hour from here (for which there was the photography ban as mentioned earlier) we arrived at our accomodation at Mt Kumgang, the Kungangsan Hotel. I will tell you more about this hotel in my next review which will also touch on other infrastructure built in the late 1990s/ early 2000s when the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region was designated a special administrative region to cater for South Korean tourists, who for a number of years arrived in large numbers.
My next North Korea (2018) – Mt Kumgang review– HERE