- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 31, 2011

MOUNT KUMGANG, North Korea — A rusty cargo ship festooned with welcome banners arrived Wednesday at North Korea’s Diamond Mountain resort to mark the launch of tours from China that snub Seoul and aim to replace suspended South Korean trips.

For a decade, the two Koreas jointly operated a golf resort ringed by Mount Kumgang’s seaside vistas and jagged peaks just north of their border, but Seoul halted the reconciliation project in 2008 after a North Korean guard fatally shot a South Korean tourist.

With relations at a low point, the two sides have been unable to agree on terms for restarting the project. Instead, the cash-strapped North has turned to China, seizing South Korea’s assets at the site known familiarly abroad as Diamond Mountain and evicting its workers over Seoul’s objections.

Now, North Korea is opening the site to other investors and welcoming tourists of all nationalities who will meet in the Chinese city of Yanji, drive three hours by road to the North Korean port city of Rason, and then go by ship down the east coast to Kumgang.

“We have opened the door, and it’s open to the whole world,” said Park Chol Su, vice chairman of the Taepung International Investment Group, a North Korean government agency set up to attract foreign investment.

About 500 North Koreans gather to wave flags while revolutionary marches blared over loudspeakers to send off the Mangyongbong. (Associated Press)
About 500 North Koreans gather to wave flags while revolutionary marches blared ... more >

He said large-scale infrastructure projects were a priority and that discussions were under way with a few potential investors, though he wouldn’t give specifics.

Seoul officials say they will try to get foreign governments to boycott the plans, and it remains unclear how many non-Korean tourists will make their way to a resort that primarily drew nostalgic South Koreans.

The cruise would ferry tourists from Rason, a special, separately administered economic zone in North Korea’s far northeast, to Mount Kumgang near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Koreas.

The maiden voyage — a trial run — arrived Wednesday, carrying dozens of Chinese travel agents, international media and North Korean officials.

About 500 North Koreans lined up with military precision at the Rason port for a red carpet send-off Tuesday, waving small flags and plastic flowers while revolutionary marches such as “Marshal Rides a White Horse” blared over loudspeakers. Streamers swirled and balloons spiraled skyward.

The Mangyongbong, a refurbished Japanese-built cargo ship with rusty portholes and musty cabins, was used for the 21-hour overnight cruise tracing the length of North Korea’s east coast. Some passengers slept on wooden bunk beds while others were assigned mattresses on the floor. Simple meals were served cafeteria-style on metal trays.

A plaque on board commemorated a 1972 tour of the boat by North Korea’s founder, late President Kim Il Sung, and bright red posters emblazoned with his sayings decorated the walls.

Mr. Park promised a “more luxurious” ship capable of carrying up to 900 passengers, perhaps next year. He said the goal is to bring as many as 4,000 visitors a day from Rason to Mount Kumgang during the peak summer season, up from some 500 per week now.