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Seoul proposes sending team to Mt. Kumgang

Nov 07,2019
The Unification Ministry on Wednesday said it proposed dispatching a team of officials to check the infrastructure at North Korea’s Mount Kumgang tourism zone in response to Pyongyang’s demand that shabby South Korean structures be removed.

According to a ministry statement, the offer to send a team - consisting of both officials and private sector tour operators - was relayed to the North’s Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee via the two countries’ liaison office in Kaesong Tuesday morning.

A ministry official said inspections of South Korean-owned buildings on Mount Kumgang were necessary in light of Seoul’s interest in renovating the area - notwithstanding North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s demand to get rid of the South Korean parts of what was once a linchpin of inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Lee Sang-min, the Unification Ministry’s spokesman, said consultations with the North would be needed to determine the schedule and logistics of a visit, stressing that the matter of Mount Kumgang can only be resolved through mutual agreement.

Starting in 1998 and for the decade that followed, tens of thousands of South Korean tourists visited the resort at Mount Kumgang through tours operated by the South Korean company Hyundai Asan. The still-unexplained killing of a South Korean female tourist by a North Korean soldier in 2008 led to the tours being suspended, and South Korea’s nearly-trillion-won investment in infrastructure at the area has been idle since.

In response to a bombshell instruction from North Korean leader Kim last month calling for the removal of all South Korean-built facilities at the Mount Kumgang tourist area, which he called tacky and “shabby,” Seoul replied on Oct. 28 by requesting the two sides sit down for working-level discussions on the matter.

That offer was rejected the next day by North Korea, which wants all discussions on the issue in written form.

Seoul’s proposal to stage an inspection visit to Mount Kumgang may be a way to appeal for a reconsideration of the North’s eviction order.

The visit could also be an opportunity for the two sides to engage on a smaller issue, given Pyongyang’s ongoing stalemate with the United States over its denuclearization.

Through its state media, North Korea continues to issue aggressive condemnations on what it calls South Korea’s obsequious attitude toward foreign forces.

Last week, Choe Ryong-hae, the regime’s vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission and No. 2 in command, said inter-Korean ties can only be possible if the South renounced such dependence, suggesting Seoul abandon its commitment to enforcing U.S.-led international sanctions on the North’s economy.

According to a Unification Ministry official on Tuesday, the South Korean government will continue to discuss “creative” solutions to the issue with the domestic companies that have stakes on Mount Kumgang. Dispatching an inspection team may have been one such idea, and if realized, would mark the first time since July 2011 that a team of South Korean government and corporate representatives visits facilities on Mount Kumgang.

It’s unclear, however, whether Pyongyang will agree to receive such a visit. Kim’s reported order in September forbade all contact with the South.

One positive sign for the South was spotted on the website of North Korea’s Kumgangsan International Travel Company - the official state-run firm running tours in the area, which introduced Kim Jong-un’s development plan for Mount Kumgang with a friendly tone toward South Korean citizens and Hyundai Asan.

“Even if the South Korean government resists, the Mount Kumgang tours are a valuable memory for the people of South Korea and cannot be stopped,” read an introduction to the plan on the website. “Going forward will we will continue to value Hyundai’s trust and will pursue the Mount Kumgang tourism project hand-in-hand.”

Yet given the regime’s history of seizing foreign assets, it may not be a stretch to assume Pyongyang may eventually expropriate or forcibly demolish the South Korean-owned facilities at Mount Kumgang. The Unification Ministry official said no such scenario was being considered at present and that Seoul’s attention would be focused on finding ways to resolve the matter while protecting the property of its citizens.

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