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Come and see the Buddhas

Published June 12, 2007


INNER DIAMOND MOUNTAIN, North Korea - North Korea is peeling back its self-imposed veil of isolation, allowing tourists a rare glimpse of the hardscrabble rural life en route to a new hiking trail that opened this month at the South Korean-run Diamond Mountain resort.

The new trail is also aimed at drumming up more business for the tourism venture run by a subsidiary of South Korea's Hyundai conglomerate, which saw a plunge in visitors last year after North Korea's missile and nuclear tests. And drawing more tourists will mean more money for the communist nation's impoverished economy.

The Diamond Mountain tourism project started in 1998 and has drawn 1.5-million guests as the only part of North Korea that can be easily visited by foreign tourists. The mountain is just north of the border between the two Koreas near the east coast.

It's one of two landmark projects - the other is a joint North-South industrial zone in the North Korean border town of Kaesong - that are hailed as models for reunification.

The new tour brings visitors to a part of the mountain previously off-limits to outsiders: inner Diamond Mountain, which features gentle waterfalls and Buddhas carved in stone.

But the trip's highlight is a two-hour drive each way around the mountain to get to the trailhead through villages nestled in valleys displaying a panorama of North Korean daily life under leader Kim Jong Il.

Paved roads give way to dirt, rolling through a countryside where the tour buses are the only vehicles as far as the eye can see. Bicycles are the only form of transportation that North Korean families can afford.

They wade through rice paddies to plant seedlings, while oxen pull plows through the mud for other crops, such as corn and beans.

Terraced fields also stretch across hillsides, an attempt to squeeze every inch of food out of the earth in a country where famine is believed to have killed as many as 2-million people starting in the 1990s.

South Korean visitors wave from the bus, but no North Koreans respond to the first outsiders they are seeing in more than a half-century. At nearly every intersection, soldiers armed with pistols clutch small red flags, ready to signal an alarm if anything goes awry.

North Korean guides gush with minutiae about the mountain, but they are hesitant to discuss village life. Taking photos from moving vehicles is banned.

"It's important to create a sense of unity between the two Koreas, " Pak Un Ju, a North Korean guide, said of the new tour. "Everybody is entitled to enjoy this mountain, whether South Korean or North Korean."

[Last modified June 12, 2007, 02:13:12]

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