[EDITORIALS]The Truth About Kumgang Tours

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[EDITORIALS]The Truth About Kumgang Tours

The government has been behind a sly and underhanded deal surrounding the Mount Kumgang tours. The agreement and the letter of confirmation that were exchanged between Hyundai Asan and the North Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee were made public by the Grand National Party on Sunday. The documents confirm that the government and Hyundai have tried to cover up and distort several critical issues. This follows acknowledgments last week by the president of the Korea National Tourism Organiza-tion discrediting the government's claim that the agency's involvement in the tours is an independent business decision.

The government and Hyundai have said that payments to North Korea for the right to operate the tours would henceforth be based on the number of tourists, rather than the flat monthly fee of $12 million under the old arrangement. They also said the $44 million in unpaid fees from February to May would be slashed by half. But nothing in the disclosed documents confirms the claims. Rather, the text of the agreement implies that the payments are to be deferred temporarily.

The letter of confirmation signed by Hyundai Asan president Kim Yoon-kyu provides that "Hyundai confirms the validity of the agreement on the payment for the operation of the tours as reached on October 29, 1998," in effect confirming a cumulative payment of $942 million by February 2005.

Granted, the documents do provide for an adjustment of the fees to a per-traveler basis until Hyundai is able to normalize operation of the tours. But it is apparent that, at least to the parties involved, the arrangement was meant to be temporary in view of the problems faced by Hyundai. It is also apparent that, once the tours are back on track, the parties have an agreement to return to the monthly-fee basis and the payment of the hundreds of millions of dollars in total for the eight years to 2005. That simply means that, once the tours are normalized, there is no question about the payment of $22 million in unpaid fees plus the $12 million monthly remittances.

The government should not be able to weasel out of this one through some feeble excuse. It is not at all hard to suspect that the government and Hyundai have tried to justify the involvement of the National Tourism Organization in the tours and the loan to the agency of government money in the North-South Cooperation Fund. To justify those questionable moves, the government and Hyundai tried to use the per-traveler basis payment as bait and attempted to rush through with the plan without adequate public discussion or the least amount of consensus. It would only be appropriate for the government to come out and divulge the fact that it intends to pump taxpayer money into what was essentially a private business venture in North Korea and, before it goes any further, ask the people whether they would agree to that.

What we cannot fathom is why the government felt it had to distort the facts. It is not clear whether there was a politically motivated grand scenario to make a political breakthrough, as the opposition party charged, that also involved the coveted visit by North Korean National Defense Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il. Or maybe it was simply a terribly sloppy job meant to revive the Mount Kumgang tours. In any case it is a shoddy thing for a government to be involved in. How could such a questionable tactic contribute to a genuine reconciliation between the North and South and to building trust and credibility for unification? Policy makers responsible for this must be reprimanded.
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