South suggests talks to iron out Kumgang issue

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South suggests talks to iron out Kumgang issue

The Unification Ministry has proposed talks to discuss Pyongyang’s demand that all South Korean-built facilities be removed from the Mount Kumgang tourist area.

In a regular briefing, ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min said Monday that invitations for talks on a “new direction for development” had been delivered that morning to the North’s Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (Kappc) and a new agency overseeing international tours to Mount Kumgang via the two Koreas’ liaison office in Kaesong.

Seoul asked that North Korea’s delegates be accompanied by relevant tourism operators, Lee said, while the South’s delegation will include representatives of Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company that ran tours to the zone from 1998 until their suspension in 2008.

“It is the government’s unified position that all aspects of inter-Korean relations be managed through dialogue and discussions,” Lee said.

“Given the potential that a unilateral measure to deal with the assets of our domestic company on Mount Kumgang could go against public sentiment and damage inter-Korean relations, there is a necessity to resolve the matter in a rational manner through sufficient discussions.”

The South’s offer, which suggested the talks be held at a “convenient date,” was a response to a notice dispatched by North Korea on Friday that asked South Korea to demolish its facilities on Mount Kumgang at an “agreed upon date” after an exchange of documents.

The notice came days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gave a bombshell order while on a visit to the resort last week, in which he called on subordinates to demolish the “shabby” and “unpleasant-looking” South Korean-built facilities and commanded a “master development plan” be drawn up to replace them.

While the order was widely seen as Pyongyang’s attempt to exert further pressure on Seoul - and an expression of its displeasure with South Korea’s reluctance to depart from U.S.-led sanctions on its economy - a JoongAng Ilbo report from Friday suggested Kim’s remarks may not be a bluff.

A presentation by a researcher from the North’s state-run Academy of Social Sciences to Chinese officials in July showed plans were in place in Pyongyang to transform Mount Kumgang into a “world-renowned tourist attraction” capable of accommodating 10,000 visitors at once, as part of a development drive encompassing Wonsan - where it also plans to build a major beach resort - and the Masikryong Ski Resort.

Pyongyang’s notice to Seoul on Friday was delivered in the name of a previously unheard-of North Korean agency coordinating tours to Mount Kumgang, suggesting the regime has established a separate state-run organization to undertake its ambitious development drive independent of preexisting organs.

For South Korea and Hyundai Asan, which have invested approximately 994.7 billion won ($851 million) to build the necessary infrastructure and cover land rental costs on Mount Kumgang, Kim’s demolition order puts at risk not only a decade’s worth of development but also one of the two “linchpins” of inter-Korean cooperation, the other being the now-shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Acknowledging the North’s apparent ambitions for Mount Kumgang - a mountain historically renowned for its scenic landscape - Lee said Seoul would consider all the strategies North Korea had in place to develop tourism in the region, adding that a “multifaceted” approach would be brought to the table if discussions are held.

The Unification Ministry’s preference for in-person talks in lieu of the North’s document exchanges may be seen as an attempt to use its stake in the project to restart dialogue. On Friday, the ministry said it would consider “creative solutions” to the suspended Mount Kumgang tours.

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