News of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s recent announcement that “shabby” and “backward” facilities may be demolished at a tourist resort, including the former Great Barrier Reef floating hotel, brought back memories of one of the strangest and most interesting press trips I’ve ever done.
Yes, I have stayed in that floating hotel, in its current – and probably last – mooring as part of the Mount Kumgang Resort in North Korea.
It was September 2003. National Road Number 7, which crosses from the South Korean border town of Kosong into the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and North Korea was open for the first time since 1953.
I was one of 15 journalists from Australia who travelled across the DMZ as the first Westerners to make the crossing since the end of the Korean War.
On the South Korean side of the border, we handed over our mobile phones, batteries and chargers, video cameras, laptops and zoom lenses. Plastic pouches carrying our passport, visa and other documents were issued, to be worn around our necks for the duration of our three day visit to North Korea (I still have mine among my souvenirs).
The Kumgang Gate, which gives entry to North Korea through the DMZ, had been opened spasmodically for family reunions and tourists from South Korea and our group of travel journalists had been granted access to the Mount Kungang National Park region of North Korea as part of an experiment to attract tourists to the region. We had been in South Korea for the annual Australian Society of Travel Writers’ convention.
The Reunification Observatory on the hill above the border post at Kosong has panoramic views of the coastline to the north and south. Giant statues of Buddha and the Virgin Mary face north from small gardens where South Koreans come to pray for reunification.
Barbed wire and razor wire fences off the enticing white beaches along the South Korean coast. Apart from some beaches in easily controlled areas near the cities, which are open in summer, the entire peninsula coastline has been fenced off by 1000km of razor wire since the 1960s. We were told that an estimated seven million people are separated from their families by the DMZ.
On this trip, we were joined in a guarded convoy of numbered buses by about 300 South Koreans, most of them intent on climbing the sacred peak of Mount Kungang. Aboard bus No. 7, we all had numbers too, lining up in order for customs and immigration formalities.
In a briefing before we set out, we were told that once in North Korea we must not attempt to speak to locals. “Anyway, they don’t speak English,” said the tour operator. Photos would be allowed in certain areas, usually when we were allowed off the bus, but zoom lenses, video cameras and binoculars were not allowed. And of course, no photos of military posts or anyone in uniform.
Our fleet of 17 Hyundai buses set off through the first set of barbed wire fences. Driving north, a mountain ridge to our left marked the 38th Parallel. The DMZ is 4km deep – 2km either side of the demarkation line – and runs almost 250km across the peninsula. It took us four hours to creep the 30km between Customs and Immigration points.
Our convoy snaked along a winding unsealed road through minefields. There are about 10 million landmines in the DMZ, making it “the most dangerous place in the world”, according to our guide. Danger signs – small triangles in red and yellow with the single word ‘mine’ on them – hung on a barbed wire fence by the roadside. We passed through ‘tank traps’, giant camouflaged concrete blocks which can be blasted to block the road in case of invasion.
South Korean soldiers in camouflage uniforms smiled and waved as we passed through the triple barrier of razor wire fences at the checkpoint. Once in North Korea, the contrasts were immediate. The North Korean soldiers’ uniforms were seemingly unchanged since the war, and they carried outdated rifles fitted with bayonets. The rutted road ran parallel with a rail line and four-lane highway under construction by soldiers; we were told the rail line would eventually link the Trans Siberian railway to Seoul and Pusan in South Korea through the DMZ, but just when – if ever – it would be used was unclear.
North Korean soldiers boarded the buses for a head count. On the return journey they also checked under our seats and in the luggage storage area for stowaways.
We drove through green mountain valleys, studded with cattle. On rocky outcrops soldiers stood guard, red signal flags in their hands. It was a dramatic scenic change from the South: mist-shrouded mountains, oxen carts, white cranes, whitewashed barracks, lone sentries at attention on deserted side roads, workers in the rice fields. And no other traffic except military vehicles. The soldiers’ young faces were hard and stern, thinner than those of their southern counterparts.
Soon the roadside has a bright green pool-fence style railing, with local roads on the other side, as the first indication that this might just be even more different than we expect.
But it was the sight of our hotel, on Jang Jeon Harbour, that was greeted with laughter and bemusement, as we recognised the floating hotel built for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in the late 1980s, which fetched up in North Korea in 1998 after a stint in Vietnam. The Hotel Haegumgang was even then showing signs of wear but was comfortable enough – and with the added bonus of Australian power points.
The nearby Hyundai village was home to 50 company employees from South Korea. This was all we saw of life in North Korea, an experience I likened to being on the set of the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show – a manufactured village in which nothing is close to reality. There was a large souvenir shop (but forget about sending a postcard home), a small food store, restaurant, bicycle hire kiosk, a theatre where we were treated to a performance by a North Korean acrobat troupe, and an impressive modern Korean bath-house where we spent two nights soaking in the hot pools. There were no children, no villagers walking in the streets, no prospect of contact with anyone. One afternoon, we biked around the streets, stopping to take photos of a large billboard portrait of the (now) late Kim Il Sung, father of today’s North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, surrounded by happy children.
The great attraction for the South Koreans was the sacred Mount Kumgang in the Geumgangsan Mountains. Most were in their 60s or 70s, kitted out with colourful alpine hiking socks and walking sticks to make the pilgrimage to this important Buddhist site. On the mountain, North Korean officials wearing suits with Kim Il Sung lapel pins and gumboots braved the rain and mist to keep an eye on everyone. Green steel ladders and stairs took us up sometimes almost vertical cliff faces rising from the gorge.
Another excursion was to the man-made Samilpo Lake and the nearby rock formations and beaches of Hae Keung Kung. The route we took was lined with shirtless soldiers toiling in the heat on each side of the road, building yet another fence.
Surreal and somewhat bizarre, this trip remains one of my most memorable, even after visiting more than 60 countries. And now, the floating hotel is in the news again with reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered the removal of all “backward” and “shabby” facilities at the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, including the floating hotel.
According to the ABC, the South Korean-funded facilities that remain have only been used during infrequent inter-Korean events, such as reunions of families separated by the Korean War, the last in August 2018.
During a recent inspection of the resort area, Mr Kim reportedly likened the facilities to “makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area”.
So that may be the end of the line for the famous floating hotel. If so, I feel privileged to have witnessed a small part of its chequered history.
Part of this blog post is an edited version of Crossing the DMZ, a chapter from my book A Glass Half Full and Other Travel Stories.