Once known as the "Hermit Kingdom," North Korea has opened its reclusive capital of Pyongyang to South Korean tourists in a bid for much-needed hard currency.
The cash-strapped North invited more than 1,000 South Korean tourists Monday to attend the opening ceremony of a newly built gymnasium in central Pyongyang jointly built by South Korean capital and North Korean labor.
The South Koreans paid 1.85 million won ($1,580) to attend the opening ceremony that included an inter-Korean goodwill basketball match.
Last month, North Korea opened Pyongyang to South Korean tourists for the first time since the 1945 division of the peninsula, a move that could lead to a sharp increase in cross-border exchanges.
The 114-member group traveled to the North's capital on Sept. 15-19. It was the first group of South Korean civilians to visit Pyongyang purely for tourism. They were allowed to travel to the capital's Tower of the Juche (self-reliance) Ideology and the Arch of Triumph in central Pyongyang, close to the Workers' Party building, in which the office of Kim Jong-Il is located.
A five-day sightseeing tour costs 2.2 million won ($1,877) while a six-day package costs 2.9 million won ($2,474). Organizers say some 2,000 South Korean tourists will travel to Pyongyang by the end of the year under the program.
Last week, some 300 South Korean civic activists also traveled to Pyongyang to mark the founding ceremony of the ancient Korea.
In 1998 the North opened a sealed-off Kumgang mountain resort on the its east coast to South Korean visitors. Hyundai is to pay North Korea $942 million in royalties to operate cruise ship tours through 2005.
South Korean officials said North Korea is expected to take further steps toward opening its capital to foreign tourists in a bid to earn much-needed hard currency.