North threatens to seize assets at Mount Kumgang

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North threatens to seize assets at Mount Kumgang

The Unification Ministry yesterday rejected threats from North Korea that it would seize real estate held by South Koreans at the Mount Kumgang resort unless the South resumed inter-Korean tour programs.

The North, in what may be an indication that it is feeling the pinch of international sanctions imposed in the wake of its nuclear test last May, issued its threats late Thursday, claiming it would look for a new business partner unless Seoul agrees to restart the Kumgang tour next month.

In response, the South reiterated its long-held position that it would not resume the tours until Pyongyang provides safety guarantees.

According to the Unification Ministry in Seoul, the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, which handles inter-Korean exchanges, recently sent a message to the ministry and Hyundai Asan, the South Korean operator of the tours and the holder of most of the real estate in question. In it, the North said it would examine all properties at Kumgang and warned South Koreans with real estate holdings there to visit their properties by March 25.

“All assets of those who do not meet the deadline will be confiscated and they will not be able to visit Mount Kumgang again,” the message read.

According to the ministry, South Korean companies Hyundai Asan, Emerson Pacific and Ilyeon Investment own a combined 359.3 billion won ($316.9 million) worth of land and buildings at Mount Kumgang. The facilities include hotels, a spa, a golf course and a family reunion center.

The North’s statement also said if South Korean travelers remain grounded by April, the North will join hands with a new partner to open the resort to foreign tourists.

The Unification Ministry said Thursday that the North’s move was “regrettable” and added that it “violates agreements between South and North Korean authorities, as well as between their tourism business operators.”

Hyundai Asan, reeling from news earlier Thursday that its president, Cho Kun-shik, would submit his resignation for failing to resume the Kumgang tours, said it hoped the North’s threat wouldn’t hinder efforts to revive tourism.

“The North’s threat to seize assets ... would lead to deterioration of inter-Korean relations as a whole,” the company’s statement read yesterday. “No matter how difficult the situation is, we hope that the two sides can resolve their problems through consultations.”

This is only the latest move by North Korea to put pressure on South Korea to restart the tour program. On March 4, the North threatened to tear up all existing accords and contracts on tourism and accused the South of blocking the resumption of the tours.

Once a major cash cow for the North, tours to Kumgang have been suspended since July 2008, when a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier there. South Korea has demanded an official apology and a security guarantee from North Korea.

In August last year, Hyundai Asan and the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee agreed to resume the tours, though neither side followed up with concrete action. In January, the North proposed holding discussions on the issue, and the two sides sat down on Feb. 8. They came away with nothing: The North asked that the tours resume by April 1 and the South ignored the request. As Seoul kept asking for security assurances, Pyongyang countered that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had met with Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun last August and vowed to provide facilities and security.

Even if the tours did resume, the South would have to review the possible violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which was adopted last year in response to the nuclear test.

Under its terms, member states must not provide financial assistance to North Korea other than for “humanitarian and developmental purposes directly addressing civilian needs.” The resolution also says that UN members must not provide “public financial support” for North Korea where such aid “could contribute to the country’s nuclear-related or ballistic missile-related or other [weapons of mass destruction]-related programs or activities.”

By Yoo Jee-ho []
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