[Seri column] Ensure tourist safety in the North

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[Seri column] Ensure tourist safety in the North

The fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist near the Mount Kumgang resort by a North Korean soldier on July 11 should never have happened. In the past, whenever a South Korean strayed into a restricted area, the visitor would be detained and then released when identified as a member of a tour group.

North Korea’s explanation so far has only fueled speculation that the shooting was premeditated. For example, the North claims warning shots were fired when the victim, a 53-year-old housewife, ignored an order to halt and tried to flee. But a South Korean near the scene said he heard only two shots and then watched from a sand dune as soldiers checked the victim, Park Wang-ja. She was shot twice from the rear, suggesting no warning shots.

Another discrepancy was the timing. Closed-circuit TV footage shows the victim leaving her beach resort hotel at 4:30 a.m. The North said the shooting occurred at 4:50 a.m., which means she would have walked 3.3 kilometers in 20 minutes. The South Korean witness said he heard the gunfire around 5:20 a.m.

Even North Korea appears to be perplexed by the incident. Nevertheless, it has refused to allow an on-site investigation by South Korean officials and has declared the case closed. Although the North expressed regret about the death, it said South Korea should take responsibility for the incident and apologize.

Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company that operates the trips to Mount Kumgang, suspended the tours after the shooting on the east coast of the peninsula.

On January 29, 2004, the two Koreas signed an agreement on South Koreans visiting the Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the demilitarized zone and staying on tours at Mount Kumgang. Under the agreement, the North is required to guarantee the security of South Korean tourists, and investigate any incident. In this regard, it is obvious that the North violated the agreement in the fatal shooting of an innocent civilian.

Besides, the law on the Mount Kumgang Tourist Zone enacted by the North’s Permanent Committee of the People’s Supreme Assembly on November 13, 2002 also prescribes compensation for damages and deportation as the strongest sanctions. North Korea’s infringement of the agreement is nothing new, but the shooting was the first time that someone has been killed. Whether the shooting was premeditated or not, the North cannot justify the fact that the tourist was gunned down by a North Korean soldier in cold blood.

Numerous inter-Korean exchanges have taken place over the last decade but in fact, visitors usually go from the South to the North, rather than the other way around. It can be said that a large number of people have been exposed to the danger of being shot. If the North cannot take measures to guarantee the safety of people from the South, people will no longer visit the North because not only Mount Kumgang but also Kaesong and Pyongyang will not be safe. Paradoxically, North Korean officials themselves have canceled plans to visit the South several times, citing security problems if the slightest danger was perceived.

Some people are worried that the incident may undermine inter-Korean relations. Ironically, President Lee Myung-bak scheduled a call for resumption of stalled reconciliation talks on the same day of the shooting. Lee’s overture softened his hard-line approach toward Pyongyang but he continues to link bilateral cooperation with progress on dismantling the North’s nuclear program. The North quickly rejected the offer as “an intolerable insult.”

The top priority should be the safety of the people, not bilateral relations. That is the duty and responsibility of a state and the North cannot be an exception. When the nation gives up this duty, it becomes meaningless as a nation.

The North must get to the bottom of the case. This issue should be resolved even at the cost of putting a chill on inter-Korean relations. The South Korean government should suspend Kaesong tours until the security of its people is guaranteed.

Thinking of a visit to Kaesong as safe under these circumstances ? in the sights of a gun ? will leave room for the North to mistreat South Korean visitors. The South should clearly recognize the danger of visiting the North and demand a security guarantee from Pyongyang.

The South Korean government should strongly demand the North Korean side cooperate in a joint probe into the case and the fact-finding team should be dispatched at the earliest possible date.

Rather than resolving the issue passively through Hyundai Asan, the government should come forward to take up the issue. Furthermore, those who neglected to warn and provide safety information to visiting tourists should be held responsible, too.

*The writer is a research fellow in the Global Studies Department at Samsung Economic Research Institute. For more SERI reports, please visit www.seriworld.org.
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