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Kumgang tour workarounds considered

Government looking for ways to allow for individual travel
Oct 28,2019
South Korea’s Unification Ministry on Friday said it would consider “creative solutions” on sanctions-blocked tourism to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang, in light of Pyongyang’s demand last week that Seoul withdraw all of its investments from the mountain resort.

While possible solutions remain unclear, one idea could involve Seoul giving permission for individual South Koreans to travel to Mount Kumgang in ways that could bypass the United Nations ban on the transfer of bulk cash.

The ministry’s comment that it was deliberating on ways to salvage one of Seoul’s two main inter-Korean economic projects - the other being the currently shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex - came with an announcement Friday that the North requested a meeting with Seoul to discuss the dismantling of all South Korean-financed infrastructure and investments at Mount Kumgang.

Last Wednesday, North Korean state media published a bombshell declaration from the regime’s leader Kim Jong-un, who, upon a visit to Mount Kumgang, ordered the complete removal of all tourist facilities built or financed by South Korea’s Hyundai Asan and the South Korean government to make room for Pyongyang’s own development projects.

The move was widely seen as a sign of bitter disappointment at the South for sticking with the U.S.-led sanctions campaign on Pyongyang, as well as a possible pivot in the North’s inter-Korean policy away from prioritizing major projects with Seoul.

For South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration, which has been keen to pursue inter-Korean initiatives were it not for obstruction from Washington, the announcement introduced a new dilemma: how to preserve its hard-won stakes in North Korea - which, in addition to their political value, include approximately 995 billion won ($851 million) in investments - without being seen as noncompliant with international sanctions.

In a press conference on Friday at the Blue House, President Moon expressed concern over the North’s demand, saying they could damage inter-Korean relations. He added that it was not tourism itself that is subject to sanctions but the mechanics of the money flows.

“There is a difficulty in reprising past methods of tourism [to Mount Kumgang] because of [UN] Security Council sanctions,” Moon said.

By implication, a new method may be considered that could act as a way for Seoul to placate North Korea, whose denuclearization talks with the United States have stalled. Individual trips by South Korean citizens to Mount Kumgang which would not involve Hyundai Asan collecting and transferring payments to Pyongyang, as was done in the past, has been cited as one method by which the North could achieve tourism gains within the parameters of sanctions.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters on Thursday that individual tourism was an issue under the Unification Ministry’s jurisdiction, since it oversees all permits in relation to entry into the North.

Yet it is also disputed whether such individual tours to the North, which have been offered by North Korean travel companies to Europeans - and U.S. citizens until Washington banned them in Sept. 2017 - are free from sanctions after all. United States Executive Order 13722 restricts a range of economic support to the North, primarily focusing on material goods that can be deemed as benefitting the regime’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs. UN Security Council Resolution 2270 bans the transfer of any material or financing related to the North’s weapons programs.

Mount Kumgang tours, which began in 1998, involved thousands of tourists visiting the mountain resort.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]