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Hyundai’s Unfinished Business: The Resurgence of North Korean Tourism

Chairman Chung Ju Yung visited North Korea via Panmunjom for business operations, which were halted due to the late Park Wang Ja incident.

Hyundai Group

North Korea has declared the resumption of its tourism business. Tourism is one of North Korea’s essential means of earning foreign currency. Its ventures make money by offering package programs for group tourists visiting North Korea.

Recently, vigorous efforts have been made to reactivate North Korea’s tourism business, including the arrival of Russian tourist groups.

Sixteen years ago, a tourism program was exclusively for Koreans. The protagonist of that program was the Mount Kumgang tour.

The Mount Kumgang tour was a tourism program for South Korean citizens that was implemented for about ten years from 1998 to 2008. Historically, Mount Kumgang has been renowned across the Korean Peninsula and even in China since the Silla and Goryeo dynasties.

After the division, the area became part of North Korea, making tourism inaccessible to South Koreans. However, the Mount Kumgang tourism initiative, through the efforts of a conglomerate, made it possible.

Chung Ju Yung, the founder and first chairman of the Hyundai Group, was the central figure behind the Mount Kumgang tour.

Hyundai Group

Chairman Chung Ju Yung reportedly considered the Mountain Kumgang tour his last task during his lifetime.

One day in 1998, Chairman Chung Ju Yung called Chairman Jung Mong Hun and said, “I have one last thing to do. Isn’t my hometown Mountain Kumgang? Let’s restart our business in North Korea. This is the first step towards preventing a civil war and achieving peaceful unification.”

The North Korean business that Chairman Chung envisioned took place about ten years before 1998, in 1989. Although he planned a second visit to North Korea in 1989, then-President Roh Tae Woo thwarted his dreams.

Following the North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993, the possibility of war breaking out in 1994 ultimately gave up the dream of the North Korean business.

However, it was reported that Chairman Chung Ju Yung’s opinion differed. Chairman Chung was convinced that the Mountain Kumgang tour was necessary to suppress the war, and he quickly started the North Korean business.

He approached Professor Kobayashi, a former bureau chief of Asahi Shimbun in Seoul, to help establish connections with North Korea.

Hyundai Group

Chairman Chung Ju Yung had his first meeting with the North Korean representatives in Beijing, China, in February 1998 and promised that Hyundai would provide 50,000 tons of corn for free at the second meeting in March. Then, in June 1998, Chairman Chung Ju Yung crossed the Panmunjom with 50 trucks loaded with 500 cows.

Chairman Chung’s cattle crossing visit to North Korea opened the waterway for private exchanges between South and North Korea, which would develop dramatically over the next ten years. In October of the same year, Chairman Chung revisited North Korea with 501 cows.

French critic Guy Sorman praised this event as “the most beautiful and shocking work of avant-garde art.”


The cattle crossing marked an essential beginning for Mount Kumgang tourism. With the inauguration of the Kim Dae Jung administration in 1998 and the start of the Sunshine Policy, Chung’s business ventures in North Korea commenced. An unusual scene occurred when Kim Jong Il personally met with Chairman Chung.

The Mountain Kumgang tourism business, which started less than a month after Chairman Chung visited North Korea, is known to have attracted as many as 1.95 million tourists over ten years.

Kumgang Mountain International Travel Agency Homepage

Initially, tourists had to travel by boat from the International Passenger Terminal at Donghae Port in Gangwon Province. Still, in 2003, Hyundai Group and North Korea negotiated further and initiated land-based tours.

The Mount Kumgang tourism initiative, which was Chung’s final project, eventually came to an end following the fatal shooting of a South Korean civilian by a North Korean military guard at Mount Kumgang in 2008, which led to the suspension of both Mount Kumgang and Kaesong tourism ventures.

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After about ten years, Chairman Chung Ju Yung’s Mountain Kumgang tour was finally discontinued. Hyundai Group is reportedly preparing to continue Chung’s legacy in business ventures with North Korea.

Hyun Jeong Eun, the chairperson of Hyundai Group, revealed her will for the North Korean business in an interview with the Chosun Ilbo last year, saying, “Chairman Chung was particularly committed to business ventures with North Korea. He could feel their skinny bones when he visited North Korea and hugged the children. He wished to see North Koreans living well.”

After 15 years of halted inter-Korean exchanges, Hyundai Group is still laying the groundwork for business with North Korea. Chairperson Hyun states that if relations improve, they are ready to restart tourism in Mount Kumgang and Kaesong immediately.


Meanwhile, it has been reported that North Korea recently laid mines on the tactical road in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) created for the joint excavation of war remains. With the previous mining of the Gyeongui Line land route by North Korea, all roads connecting South and North Korea have been cut off.

The Gyeongui Line land route where North Korea planted mines was used by related officials of companies that entered the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the past, and the Donghae Line land route, which was also cut off along with the Gyeongui Line, was known to be a land route used by Mountain Kumgang tourists and separated families.

As North Korea cuts off all roads that were regarded as symbols of South-North exchange and cooperation and makes them irrecoverable, there is growing interest in what North Korea’s subsequent actions will be.

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