[EDITORIALS]Mixing Politics and TourismControversy surrounds the government decision to lend 90 billion won ($69 million) of funds from the North-South Cooperation Fund, at an annual interest rate of 4 percent, to the Korea National Tourism Organization. The tourist body will join the Mount Kumgang tourism project by forming a consortium with Hyundai Asan Corporation, which runs the tours. Many people doubt whether tax money should be used to support a North Korea project of a private company which is in the red. Others say the economic feasibility report, "Plans to Proceed With Mount Kumgang Tourism Project," submitted by the Korea National Tourism Organization and Hyundai Asan is very weak. The report was required to receive financial support from the North-South Cooperation Fund.
The government is being criticized for pouring in taxpayers' money to the Mount Kumgang project using questionable tactics and procedures. Suspicions that the government maneuvered to force the National Tourism Organization to participate in the Mount Kumgang project to save Hyundai Asan were confirmed when the government decided swiftly to use the North-South Cooperation Fund to support the ailing project. Hyundai Asan is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the government violated its self-proclaimed principle of separation of economics and politics. The government asserts that the National Tourism Organization is participating in the tourism project on its own accord, since the participation is an extension of the cooperation agreement on the Mount Kumgang tourism project signed by the tourism organization and Hyundai Asan last August.
But this is only a perfunctory argument. On June 22, Unification Minister Lim Dong-won said there had been no request for financial support from the cooperation fund. The government, however, rushed to lend a huge sum of money from the North-South Cooperation Fund only one week after that assertion. The sudden decision to support the cooperation fund in the Mount Kumgang project was made so that Hyundai Asan could meet its financial obligations to the North in June: settlement of an unpaid bill of 22 million dollars.
More questions arise about predictions that the future of the project is bright because the consortium has plans to attract 180,000 high school students to Mount Kumgang as their annual study tour destination. Those predictions are in the report which the consortium presented to the government to receive aid from the cooperation fund. If those plans are successful, about 30 percent of all high school students in the country would have to go on such tours, and there seems to be no evidence that such a goal could ever be reached. All this gives rise to suspicions that the government may have designs to make it an obligation for high schools to designate Mount Kumgang tour as a school activity. That would mean parents would have to shoulder at least double the average expense of study tours － 105,000 won in 2000 according to the Seoul education office － to visit Mount Kumgang. Representative Kim Il-yun complains that even if 30 percent of our high school students do visit Mount Kumgang as the government plans, the tour's profits in 2003 and 2004 would not even reach half the amount of interest the government could receive if it just put its tourism investment in a bank.
The plan is questionable because it lacks economic feasibility. The government should not damage the image of the Mount Kumgang tour project which was started by Hyundai Asan with bright future prospects, by pouring in tax money.