[VIEWPOINT]More bumps along Geumgang trail

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[VIEWPOINT]More bumps along Geumgang trail

As part of the measures to revive the Mount Geumgang tourism project, which is again on the brink of failure, the government has decided to subsidize 60 percent to 70 percent of tourism expenses for 14 million elementary through high school students with money from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund. Hyundai Asan Corp., which runs the project, is bleeding red ink because only about 1,000 tourists per month have shown up for the tours this year. If the problem is not fixed soon, the tourism project will fold.

I can sympathize with the government, but it is a shame that the measures it came up with are lacking in principles, strategy and efficiency. The government must review the fundamentals of the problem before it pushes ahead with its plans.

By deciding to interfere with the Mount Geumgang tourism project, the Kim Dae-jung government breached its own highly touted principle of keeping government policies separate from any economic cooperation with North Korea. The principle of not mixing politics with the economy has served as the primary stepping-stone for the current administration, which criticized the North Korean policies of the previous administrations. Those administrations were actively involved in economic projects and exchanges with North Korea.

The Mount Geumgang project was the first project that the principle was applied to, and has been benefiting from it. The project was granted although the investment exceeded the ceiling set by the government; the investment method - direct cash payment to the North - violated the guidelines; and the terms of contract with the North were blatantly biased. Giving up the principle after only three years of operation signifies a failure by the current administration's policies of engagement with the North as well as the previous policy of keeping pressure on the North. Even though the failure of the project is attributable to the rigid North Korean government and to the misjudgments of a private company, the South Korean government consequently held itself accountable for the result.

The government announced it will provide up to 1.8 billion won ($1.4 million) a month to 5,600 students maximum. If we assume that all the students in South Korea apply for the financial aid to make the tour, only one out of 208 will be aided per month. But the government has no plans to discern who gets what on what grounds. The government also is not prepared if fewer applicants than expected sign up, or if tourists who were willing to go at their own expense back out.

The government has created more difficult and complicated problems. What would it do if the economic significance of the project declines and the value of the project as the means of reconciliation and dialogue with Pyeongyang are tainted by government interference? What matters is not how much the government would subsidize; it is the way the government would promote it. The government's arbitrariness in pursuing the policy, without discussing it at the National Assembly or with the general public, is wrong.

Another question is whether the government's direct support would contribute to enhancing inter-Korean relations. The real breakthrough could come only when the North Korean government changes its attitude. For Pyeongyang to change itself, it needs to first understand the true nature of inter-Korean relations and the international political landscape. What South Koreans should do is conjure up an environment whereby the North Korean government can do what we do - only better.

Asking the North Korean government to allow road trips to the mountain will be the minimum requirement in making such an environment. While refusing to answer that important issue, Seoul is reaching out for another favor. Stretching out the project without the cooperation of the North is meaningless.

The fact that a policy does not render a productive result itself is a valuable lesson, but Seoul is not showing a willingness to learn from its failure. If the government genuinely wants to pave the way for inter-Korean reconciliation and reunification, before subsidizing the Mount Geumgang project, it must first support Hanawon, a place that helps North Korean evacuees adjust to South Korea.


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The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.

by Yoo Ho-yeol

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