Individual tours to North pushed

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Individual tours to North pushed

South Korea is pushing ahead with individual tourism to North Korea, said an official in Seoul Tuesday, which the government stressed was not subject to global sanctions nor needed the approval of Washington.

While South Korea will work to enable its citizens to visit the North on an individual basis, whether the initiative succeeds depends on Pyongyang’s approval, the official told reporters.

Allowing individual tourism to North Korea was an option Seoul had been reviewing for months to energize relations with Pyongyang as denuclearization negotiations remain deadlocked between the United States and North Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in effectively formalized his government’s push to allow those tours in a press conference earlier this month, though the idea was controversially challenged by U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris.

Seoul’s Ministry of Unification, which has supported the Blue House’s position that it is South Korea’s sovereign right to push through with its tourism plan, on Monday presented a broad outline for how individual tours by its citizens to North Korea could work.

A report distributed to reporters listed a range of possible destinations for such tours, like the border city of Kaesong or Mount Kumgang,
which South Koreans could visit when inter-Korean exchanges were active between 2000 and 2008.

Other potential sites include the capital of Pyongyang, or places like Wonsan, Samjiyon or Yangdok, which South Koreans may visit through a travel company from a third country, the report read.

“[Individual tours] will not be carried out in a form that involves existing [South Korean] tourism operators, but rather though non-profit groups or a travel company in a third country that can act as a conduit to gain the North’s permission to visit,” said a ministry official.

The most realistic plan, the official said, was one in which a Chinese tourism company creates a package tour for South Koreans. “Our government can then review the citizens listed for their eligibility, then give the Chinese company permission to seek North Korean visas for their visit,” the official added.

Whether such plans are truly practical, however, remains in question, analysts say.

Unification Ministry officials said such visits would not be subject to a secondary boycott from the United States, in relation to a remark from U.S. Ambassador Harris last week that Washington could invoke sanctions on South Korea if the tourism plan came to fruition.

If the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control determines a company’s activities with the North are helping Pyongyang’s nuclear program, Washington could impose sanctions on the company that may make it difficult to operate.

Seoul has also failed to present clear assurances of the safety of its citizens willing to undertake such tours other than stressing its determination to consult Pyongyang on the matter.

North Korea, however, continues to refuse discussions with South Korea over the latter’s assets in Mount Kumgang, which Pyongyang had demanded Seoul dismantle by February.

One Unification Ministry official called the individual tours “basically a private contract between a free, democratic country [South Korea] and the individual,” implying the government would not act to seek sanctions exemptions with the United States for participants since they were willing to travel to the North on their own volition.

Washington currently imposes a travel ban to North Korea for all U.S. passport holders, and as of Aug. 6 last year, ruled that all South Koreans who visited the North after March 2011 were no longer eligible for electronic visas and have to obtain a visa from a U.S. consular office in order to visit the United States.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, LEE YU-JUNG and SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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