GOSEONG, South Korea (Reuters) - Endless stretches of beach and lush forested hills long made a small South Korean border town the traditional playground of the elite in divided North and South Korea.
Now it struggles to attract tourists, partly under the weight of hostilities hurled across the militarized border a few kilometers away coupled with no realistic prospect of moves leading to unification.
Kim Il-Sung, the lionized founder of North Korea who launched the 1950-53 Korean war in which more than a million people died, favored a seaside villa built for foreign missionaries when Japan occupied the Korean peninsula.
The South’s first president had his own retreat just down the road on the shore of a picturesque lake.
Fewer holidaymakers now trickle into the area and even the 101st anniversary of Kim’s birthday, to be celebrated on Monday in the North with pomp and perhaps missiles, has done nothing to lift interest.
“This is where the top one percent of high-ranking officials came for their holidays,” said Ham Ji-su, a guide at Goseong town’s empty tourist information kiosk on a blustery spring day. “People just want to find out why these people came here.”
Advocates of cross-border tourism, part of a short-lived “Sunshine Policy” that brought warmer North-South ties at the beginning of the millennium, say it has gone the way of failed cooperation ventures under the North’s 30-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un, the state founder’s grandson.
They point to North Korea’s closure last week of the jointly run Kaesong industrial park. There are also reminders of Goseong’s own aborted project - a recreation complex at Mount Kumgang over the border, closed in 2008 when a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean tourist.
Small groups of South Koreans make their way up a promontory to the three-storey, stone “Kim Il-Sung villa”, where he and other Communist dignitaries holidayed from 1948 until the outbreak of war two years later.
“How would Kim Jong-un feel if he came here? He would want to make a grab for this place as quickly as possible,” said Kim Jae-heei, 67, a reluctant visitor who came at his wife’s urging.
“In these confusing times, I just feel sad, extremely sad, seeing the villa where Kim Il-Sung stayed.”
After the Korean War ended in 1953, redrawn frontiers placed it inside South Korea, 11 km (seven miles) from the border.
There is little at the villa, now a museum, linked to the late leader. The main exhibit is a mock bedroom with period costumes and a battered short-wave radio.
Posted on an outside stairway is a blow-up of a 1948 photograph at the spot where his son, Kim Jong-il, the current North Korean leader’s late father, is seated next to a playmate, the son of a Soviet army officer. Kim Jong-il was six years old at the time.
In an adjacent carpark, designed to accommodate 100-odd vehicles, a handful of tour buses sit. One arrives with a party of school children, who scamper up the stairway only to return within five minutes.
They pay little attention to stall vendor Kim Sang-jin, glum that he has not sold a single pack of dried squid all morning. He blames not bellicose rhetoric, but a feeling of despondency after the closer of the joint industrial park at Kaesong.
“After that news was broadcast, we lost about 70 percent of visitors,” he said.
SOLEMN SITE; K-POP
A few hundred meters away, an information officer waits for visitors to turn up at a cozier villa perched on the lakeshore and once frequented by Syngman Rhee, South Korea’s first strongman president who led the country through the 1950-53 war.
This villa has some effects that belonged to the president, forced to flee into exile in 1960 - a typewriter, books, Chinese calligraphy. A military officer says no pictures are allowed as this is a military-controlled property.
Symbols of the shattered visions of joint tourism abound.
A holiday complex, just 16 km (10 miles) from the border, has imposing sea views, but clearly few visitors. Its restaurant, with decorations for a wedding reception at the ready, is closed.
A 15-minute ride further north leads to the Unification Observatory, where visitors gaze out over the rugged expanse of the Demilitarized Zone towards more mountains - North Korean territory - in the distance.
Authorities portray the observatory as a solemn site, with the entrance dominated by a monument to war dead and oversize Catholic and Buddhist statues leading to a chapel and lecture hall. A huge grass “unification” emblem is emblazoned on a north-facing hillside.
But the image is fleeting.
K-pop songs waft out of loudspeakers outside cafes, one in a disused train car. Kiosks sell costume jewelry, ice cream and goods from the North, including liquor, herbs and mushrooms.
Veterans at the site harbor few hopes of reconciliation as they peer at an unused road and rail line that once took tourists northward to the abandoned Mt. Kumgang tourist complex.
“When you are young, it is different from when you are old. He may be bad tempered. He can launch a war,” said Cho Rae-hyuk, referring to Kim Jong-un.
Cho, 85, said he had undertaken missions in disguise over the border in the 1950s to capture enemy soldiers. He and other former agents saw the chances of unification as remote.
Fellow veteran Kang Tae-Chang, 84, was skeptical about the chances of ever visiting his home town in today’s North Korea.
“That just isn’t going to happen,” he said.
Teenagers swarmed over the complex, many on school trips, but their preoccupations appeared to lie elsewhere.
“When I see North Korea on the news, it scares me for perhaps a moment. Then I think that nothing is happening,” said Jeon Da-min, 18.
“North Korea just doesn’t get much attention.”
Editing by Robert Birsel