Reality stands in the way of Korea's dream of harmony
Few natural wonders are more distinctive than Mount Kumgang in the southeastern corner of North Korea. Looming a few kilometres above the eastern end of the demilitarised zone that has divided the Korean Peninsula since the Korean war, it is not one mountain but several thousand crags of granitic rock jutting up in spire-like formations.
For the late Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai empire, Kumgang was a dream that beckoned long after he had run away from his home in the nearby Asan village to seek his fortune in Seoul. Kumgang stood for the dream not only of Korean reunification but of penetration into the North for South Korean business and industry. One of his proudest achievements, three years before he died in 2001, was to open up tourism by boat from the South Korean port of Donghae to a small port near the base of Kumgang built by Hyundai Engineering and Construction.
Soon, however, the dream turned into a nightmare that epitomises the frustrations of gaining entry into the North. No company has suffered more than Hyundai Asan, founded by Chung to build up facilities at Kumgang as well as the economic zone at Kaesong. Hyundai Asan has invested well over US$1.5 billion in both Kumgang and Kaesong. The pay-off for the Kumgang deal has been tragedy, bankruptcy and, most recently, North Korea's announcement that it's abrogating its contract and taking over all of Asan's operations at Kumgang.
The downfall of the Kumgang programme bears a discomfiting parallel to the continuing frustrations over the past two decades in getting North Korea to do away with its nuclear programme. The sense is that failure follows hope in a pattern in which North Korea forever finds ways to violate all agreements, diplomatic or commercial.
By 2002, Hyundai Asan was bringing thousands of tourists to Mount Kumgang. On the way, they witnessed the construction by South Korean companies of a single-track railway beside the newly paved road into North Korea - the partner of another line from the South to the Kaesong complex. Hyundai Construction did most of the new construction while Hyundai Merchant Marine ferried the tourists up the coast, all under the aegis of Hyundai Asan.
All seemed to be going well when Chung's fifth son, Chung Mong-hun, as chairman of Hyundai Asan, persuaded the North to open the way to Kumgang by road. The dream turned tragic, however, when Chung Mong-hun jumped to his death in 2003 amid investigation into Hyundai Asan's funnelling of hundreds of millions of dollars to North Korea to get Kim Jong-il to agree to the 'sunshine' summit with then president Kim Dae-jung.
Chung Mong-hun's death was not the only tragedy surrounding the Kumgang project. In 2008, a South Korean housewife, Park Wang-ja, was shot and killed by North Korean soldiers after she wandered outside the fence surrounding the tourist zone to gaze at the sunrise. South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak suspended tours to Kumgang and insisted on an investigation. North Korea refused and relations soured after the South cut off donations of rice and fertiliser.
The stand-off assumed a broader symbolic significance as Lee demanded the North give up its nuclear programme as a prerequisite for aid.
Under the circumstances, Kumgang was not exactly a destination for relaxation. Instead of fulfilling Chung Ju-yung's dream, the Kumgang experience shows how misguided was the vision. If the fantasy of North-South harmony endures, the reality is one of frustration for Hyundai Asan, for North-South commerce and for talks on the North's nuclear weapons. The lesson of Hyundai Asan is that no business should expect success in its dealings with Pyongyang - just as no trains run on those new tracks that glisten by the Hyundai-built highways to Kumgang and Kaesong.
Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals