South condemns North bid to scrap Mount Kumgang tourism

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South condemns North bid to scrap Mount Kumgang tourism

A dozen years after it began as a symbol of warming inter-Korean relations, the North wants to freeze South Korean tourism at Mount Kumgang.

South Korea yesterday condemned the North’s decision late Thursday to suspend South Korean facilities and expel South Korean officials from the resort. The North also said it would seek a new business partner to run the tour programs.

The South Korean government on Thursday and again yesterday denounced the declaration as “very regrettable.”

“North Korea’s unilateral move violates inter-Korean agreements and runs counter to international regulations,” said Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung, reiterating the point made in the ministry press release late Thursday.

“This announcement must be withdrawn immediately. Problems surrounding Mount Kumgang must be resolved through inter-Korean dialogue. We state once again that all responsibilities stemming from this move lie with North Korea.”

The announcement may be a gambit to pressure South Korea to resume the tours, which have been on hold since a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier after she ventured into a restricted zone at the resort in July 2008.

In a message carried on the official Korean Central News Agency, a spokesman for Myongseungji General Development Guidance Bureau said the South would “dearly pay the price for driving inter-Korean relations to ruins by balking at the resumption of the Mount Kumgang tours.” The bureau oversees Mount Kumgang tourism for North Korea.

The shut-out targets properties owned by the South Korean government and the South’s state-run Korea Tourism Organization, including a hot spring, a cultural center and a visitors’ center for separated Korean families. That leaves two hotels owned by Hyundai Asan, a Seoul-based company overseeing Mount Kumgang tours, a golf course owned by Emerson Pacific and a hotel and seafood restaurant run by Ilyeon Investment.

The South Korean companies own a combined 359.3 billion won ($319.8 million) worth of land and buildings at Mount Kumgang, according to the Unification Ministry here.

The ministry said the North had taken no immediate action since Thursday’s announcement. It also refused to verify some media reports that a Chinese travel agency has already reached a six-month deal with North Korea to organize tours to Mount Kumgang and that about 1,000 tourists are scheduled to visit the resort around April 20.

Late last month, the North threatened to confiscate South Korean properties at the resort unless South Korean owners attended a survey of the facilities. As the inspection got under way on March 25, North Korea said it would take “extreme steps” if the tour program did not resume by April 1, but didn’t elaborate further at the time.

Hyundai Asan was more measured than the South Korean government in its reaction. In a statement yesterday, the company called for “earnest” dialogue between the two governments and said it hoped the situation wouldn’t deteriorate any further.

Hyundai Asan said 76 South Koreans, including ethnic Koreans, were staying at Mount Kumgang as of Thursday.

The murky future of the tours is a blow to Hyundai Asan, which was founded in 1999 specifically to operate them. Last month, its chief executive, Cho Kun-shik, stepped down over his inability to resume the business.

The suspension has proven costly to the company, which reported an operating loss of 32.2 billion won in 2009, nearly six times the loss from a year earlier. The company’s workforce has shrunk from 1,084 in early 2007 to 387 as of February this year, and it has slashed wages for remaining workers.

The suspended tour program also has been a particularly thorny issue between the Koreas this year. At its peak, the Mount Kumgang tour programs attracted 300,000 tourists a year.

But after the tourist was killed, the South demanded an on-site investigation, an official apology from North Korea and a safety assurance.

Last August, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun agreed to work toward resuming the Mount Kumgang tour programs. But the two governments never made any progress.

The North this year has appeared increasingly anxious to resume the tours, in what may be a sign that it’s feeling the pinch of international financial embargoes imposed after its nuclear test last year. The tours were considered a major cash cow for the North, yielding about $30 million per year over the past decade.

The North has repeatedly called for an inter-Korean meeting to discuss the state of the tours but when the two sides finally met on Feb. 8, they failed to reach any agreement.

The South repeated that tourism couldn’t begin unless the North apologized and provided safety guarantees, while the North, believing it had done enough, said the tours should begin by April 1.

No follow-up meeting was held.

By Yoo Jee-ho []

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“황당하고 암담합니다.”

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