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Seoul removes border crossing restrictions

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Sept 01,2009
Starting today, restrictions on South Koreans’ cross-border land trips to North Korea will be lifted, following Pyongyang’s offer last month to ease its rules for crossings, but Seoul said it is not yet ready to resume the suspended tourism program to the Mount Kumgang resort.

The Unification Ministry in Seoul announced yesterday that the number of permitted cross-border trips will be 23, up from six. There will be 12 northbound trips and 11 homebound passages each day, the ministry said. In addition, the 150-vehicle-per-day restriction will be lifted.

On Aug. 20, North Korea announced that it would ease those restrictive measures, taken on Dec. 1 in protest of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s conditional policy of tying aid to nuclear disarmament.

At the time, the number of South Koreans permitted to stay in Kaesong was capped at 800, down from about 4,000. This and other cutbacks severely damaged South Korean businesses at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where 101 South Korean companies employ about 38,000 North Korean workers. Some firms had to scale back operations or fold their businesses altogether.

Chun Hae-sung, the ministry spokesman, said individual companies will manage their personnel in Kaesong as they see fit.

In August, North Korea undertook a series of reconciliatory steps toward South Korea. Most recently, Pyongyang on Saturday released four South Korean fishermen detained for a month after veering north of the maritime border on the east coast. The North also released a South Korean engineer held for more than four months in Kaesong and has agreed to reopen the border and resume reunion programs for separated families.

But the question of the tourism program to Mount Kumgang remained yesterday.

North Korea has offered to resume the tour package, suspended since last July after a South Korean woman in Mount Kumgang was shot and killed by a North Korean guard. But the South has long demanded an apology from Pyongyang, a joint on-site inspection at the scene of the incident, systematic measures to prevent similar cases reoccurring and safety guarantees for South Koreans north of the border.

At the moment, South Koreans can travel to and from Mount Kumgang once a week. Chun said there’s no need to raise the number of these trips since the tourism program is not yet back on track.

“The basic position of our government is that we need measures reached through government-level talks for the Kumgang tour to resume,” the ministry spokesman said.

But when pressed if the South would be willing to propose talks on the issue, Chun said Seoul was in no rush. “Currently, we have no plan to propose talks on Mount Kumgang tourism,” he said. “We will first take into account matters surrounding the Korean Peninsula, including the North Korean nuclear issue, and then try to establish our position on dialogue with the North.”

According to Hyundai Asan, which operates the Kumgang package, more than 1.9 million South Koreans have visited the scenic mountain resort since tourism began in 1998.


By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]



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