[OUTLOOK]Don't Keep the Tours Alive This WayThe government has chosen the Korea National Tourism Organization to support the ailing Mount Kumgang project. A decision on whether the tourism organization will be allowed to use money from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund is to be made soon.
But should these funds be given to the National Tourism Organization to keep the Mount Kumgang project afloat, and is the participation of the tourism agency in the Mount Kumgang project appropriate?
For the state-owned National Tourism Organization to participate in the Mount Kumgang tourism project is just about equivalent to the government participating in it. This runs counter to the principle of the separation of politics and the economy that the Kim Dae-jung administration has been emphasizing ever since it took office. If the government does not maintain a consistent line in its North Korea policy, it will both disable the policy and alienate the public.
The government's economic reforms consisted largely of forcing insolvent domestic firms from the market. If the government takes the step of supporting the failing North Korea projects, it will be at odds with its previous economic policies.
The participation of a public corporation － the National Tourism Organization － in a project which is in the red cannot be justified for any reason, and contradicts the declared aims and statutes of the organization.
Why is the government pushing ahead with the tourism agency's involvement in the North Korea project despite the critical problems mentioned above?
The principal reason is its overriding determination to achieve a visit to Seoul by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, regardless of any complications. It is known that Kim Jong-il is demanding large amounts of economic aid in return for his Seoul visit. Therefore, many persons assume that the government has ordered the tourism agency to prop up the Mount Kumgang project to curry favor with the North Korean leader. Another reason is the desire to keep alive this symbol of the "sunshine policy."
Should the Mount Kumgang tourism project be suspended or stopped, it could be perceived as symbolic of the failure of the sunshine policy. This is the last thing the government wants.
Then, what principles and standards should be observed in the future course of the Mount Kumgang project?
First of all, North Korea tourism projects should be promoted if they are economically feasible. The failure of the Mount Kumgang project is its unprofitability, and the profitability of a tourism project depends on its sales value. The sales value of the Mount Kumgang project was damaged by the failure to create a safe, free and relaxed atmosphere as in sightseeing tours elsewhere. No matter how beautiful the scenery may be, no one can view it at ease if there are barbed-wire entanglements everywhere and if armed guards and tourist managers are scrutinizing the visitors like hawks to see who violates the strict regulations.
This situation is not likely to change much if a land route to Mount Kumgang opens. The project is severely hampered because of its limited appeal to tourists and the instability of political relations between North and South Korea. For the profitability of the Mount Kumgang project to improve, the North Korean government must change its attitude.
Second, allowing the use of the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund by the National Tourism Organization violates the law that governs the fund.
According to the law, small and medium companies have the priority over the use of the fund. The 30 largest companies in Korea and firms with bad credit ratings are excluded from such support.
Although the National Tourism Organization is not one of the 30 largest firms in Korea, it still fails to comply with the principles of the law as it is not a small or medium firm.
Because the fund was created by taxpayers' money, its use should be deliberated and approved in advance by the National Assembly.
Third, any political considerations must be excluded from inter-Korean economic cooperation projects. It is not easy to distinguish economics and politics in inter-Korean relations, but because the government has declared as a principle the separation of economics affairs from politics, it should follow that principle.
If the government is willing to abandon the principle for political gain, such as ensuring Kim Jong-il's Seoul visit, the North Korea policy of the government will lose the confidence of the people.
People are increasingly worried about government's lukewarm response to the North Korean ships that violated our waters and suspect that the response resulted from political considerations. If the government tries to approach the inter-Korean economic cooperation issue with its political logic, it will ultimately become a heavy political burden for the administration.
The writer is a former vice minister of unification.
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