Gov’t split on resuming Mount Kumgang tour

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Gov’t split on resuming Mount Kumgang tour

The Park Geun-hye administration appears to have inconsistent views on the possibility of resuming an inter-Korean tourism project as top North Korea policymakers continue to make contradictory remarks.

Since 1998, the two Koreas operated a joint tour program to the North’s scenic Mount Kumgang as a part of an economic cooperation project. The venture was suspended in July 2008, however, after a South Korean tourist was shot dead at the resort by a North Korean soldier.

The tours were considered a major cash cow for Pyongyang, yielding about $30 million per year, and since losing that source of revenue, North Korea has consistently demanded that the project resume.

For a while, speculation increased that the Park government may consider restarting the tour as a part of efforts to thaw frozen ties.

But controversy has recently flared in the South that resuming the tour project will violate the United Nations’ sanctions on the North to punish its illicit missile and nuclear development programs.

In a press briefing on Monday, Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said that the resumption of the tour was an inter-Korean issue, not an international matter.

“It is this government’s understanding that the Mount Kumgang tour was suspended not because of the North’s nuclear test, but because of the shooting death of our tourist,” Ryoo said. “First, the two Koreas must have a discussion on the North’s apology and promise to prevent the recurrence of a similar incident.”

“If the Mount Kumgang tour program is precisely covered under the UN sanctions on the North, the government won’t even consider the possibility of resuming it,” Ryoo said. “But the UN sanctions are made of many political clauses such as whether the project benefits the North’s production of weapons of mass destruction or not, so there can be many interpretations.”

A senior ministry official also told reporters on Sunday that the government doesn’t see that resuming the tour program would be against the international community’s restrictions on Pyongyang as punishment for its nuclear arms development.

“But it is not the time for the two Koreas to talk about this because there is no discussion currently taking place on the Mount Kumgang tour,” he said.

Alternatively, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said the matter was more than a domestic issue.

In another press conference on Monday, Yun said that whether resuming the tour program would violate the UN sanctions on the North must be determined by the international community.

“Whether the money from the tour program will contribute to the North’s efforts to develop its weapons of mass destruction or not will be key,” Yun said. “Eventually ... the UN Security Council will make a decision.”

The ministers also appeared to have different views on Pyongyang profiting from the tour program. Under the resolutions adopted by the UN after Pyongyang fired a long-range missile and conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013, the provision of providing bulk cash that could potentially contribute to North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs has been prohibited.

While the foreign minister sees that the tour project’s revenue could be counted as “bulk cash,” as defined in the resolutions, the unification minister treats the Mount Kumgang tour as an exception.

On Tuesday, the North’s state media reported that the regime would hold promotional events in April and May to attract foreign investors to develop the Wonsan and Mount Kumgang areas, which it hopes to turn into an international tourism zone. Tour programs will be operated for the investors, the North’s Korean Central News Agency said.

BY SER MYO-JA [myoja@joongang.co.kr]


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