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The Korean crisis and the $74M golf course that nobody plays

By Paul Gittings, CNN
  • Multi-million dollar golf course at Mount Kumgang in North Korea stands vacant
  • Disagreements between North and South Korea have stalled the development
  • A South Korean tourist was shot dead at the resort in July 2008 leading to diplomatic impasse
  • The resort hosted a Korean Tour event in 2007 which took place without spectators

(CNN) -- It was one of the symbols of a supposed new era of co-operation between the two Koreas when it opened two years ago.

A championship golf course with a reported $74m price tag, built in North Korea near the infamous Demilitarized Zone, in the picturesque setting of the Mount Kumgang range.

It proved a big draw for South Korean visitors and has even hosted a professional golf tournament.

But it now lies empty and unplayed with the other facilities on the resort mothballed.

The story of the golf course serves to highlight the continued tension between the two Koreas, which was brought into sharp focus Tuesday when the North fired shells into the South's border island of Yeonpyeoung.

Koreas on 'brink of war' claims Pyongyang

Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed in the attack, which also wounded 15 marines and three civilians.

When we reopen The Ananti, Kumgang Mountain, I hope to talk with you about our resort in North Korea
--Emerson Pacific spokesman
  • Golf
  • North Korea
  • South Korea
  • Pyongyang

In March, a South Korean warship was sunk -- apparently by a North Korean torpedo, though this was vigorously denied -- with the loss of 46 sailors.

But it was the death of a South Korean tourist at Mount Kumgang in 2008 which first dealt a blow to hopes that the development of western-style facilities at the resort would boost the unification program.

On Friday July 11, 53-year-old Park Wang-ja, one of about 200,000 South Koreans who annually spent holidays in the area, was shot dead by a North Korean soldier.

The exact circumstances of her death remain disputed, but according to the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency, the soldier opened fire after she crossed into a military area near a beach.

The South Korean authorities wanted to send a team to investigate her death, but when this was refused, they suspended all trips indefinitely.

"We did not have any clear facts in this case," Lee Jong-joo, the official spokeswoman of the South Korean Unification Ministry, told CNN.

"The most important thing is that the North Korean authorities can guarantee the safety of our tourists," she added.

With the trips halted because of the security concerns, the North reacted by taking over the real estate assets on the resort -- "a breach of international law," said Jong-joo -- then earlier this year expelled the South-Korea-hired employees at Mount Kumgang.

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But earlier this year, tours for non-South Korean nationals and local guests resumed to Mount Kumgang.

Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours, who run specialized trips to North Korea, was the first foreigner to arrive on the resort with a small party in July.

When he had visited previously it had been to a busy commercial enterprise -- with modern shopping areas and hotels -- not to mention a top-class golf course.

Development at the resort was first started in 1998 by the Asian corporation Hyundai Asan and was seen as a sign of "Sunshine" diplomacy between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Hyundai, in turn, gave another South Korean company, Emerson Pacific, the rights to develop the golf course and spa complex.

Cockerell confirmed to CNN that everything remained closed.

"The golf course is not operational, but is being maintained," he said.

The course itself is a stunning 6,900-meter layout with sea and mountain views and has a series of signature holes, most notably a 929m par 7, one of the longest in the world.

The terrain is perfect for a golf course, "the most beautiful mountain range in a country renowned for its mountain ranges," added Cockerell.

It officially opened for tourists in May 2008 and initially all was well as visitor numbers increased.

South Koreans, especially, were able to take advantage of the relatively cheap green fees when coming on the organized trips.

The course had also been the venue for a Korean Professional Golf Tour (KPGT) event, the Kumgang Ananti NH Open in October 2007.

The tournament, which boasted a prize pool of 300,000,000 Korean won ($254,000), was unusual in one respect because it took place without any spectators due to restrictions imposed by the North Korean authorities.

"Just players, caddies and officials," recalls Grant Sung, marketing manager of the KPGT.

But with negotiations between North and South deadlocked over the issue of security, "we have had several rounds of talks already," Jong-joo told CNN, there is little immediate hope of a resolution to the diplomatic stalemate, particularly in the light of this week's attacks.

It leaves Emerson Pacific, whose shares are listed on Asian stock markets, with a problem.

"It's a very delicate issue to comment on at this time," a spokesman for the company told CNN.

"When we reopen The Ananti, Kumgang Mountain, I hope to talk with you about our resort and business in North Korea," he added.

In perhaps a sign of a thaw in relations, nearly 1,000 families separated by Korean War nearly 60 years ago were re-united at Mount Kumgang at the start of this month in a three-day trip.

It was the first time in over a year that a unification event, which has brought together thousands of families since 1998, has taken place.

But the stalemate continues over the wider Mount Kumgang project.

"There is a long way to go before we can reach an agreement," said Jong-joo, who said the North Koreans were unwilling to discuss security issues despite repeated requests.

The continuing impasse leaves a course in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, as the only option for visitors to the country who want to play 18 holes in an unusual setting.

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