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North issues ultimatum to South

Unless Seoul complies, Mt. Kumgang facilities will be demolished
Dec 03,2019
North Korea issued an ultimatum to South Korea that it will unilaterally demolish all of the South’s facilities at Mount Kumgang if Seoul does not comply with its demands, the JoongAng Ilbo learned Monday.

According to a South Korean official, the North followed up on its public commentary published through its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Nov. 15 warning of a unilateral demolition by recently sending an ultimatum to Seoul demanding that it dismantle its facilities at the Mount Kumgang tourist resort within a certain time frame before the North carries out “certain measures” of its own.

The official did not elaborate what that time frame was nor what such a corresponding measure would be, but the North’s own KCNA report from Nov. 15 explicitly mentioned it would pull down the buildings if there was no South Korean response.

The Kyunghyang Shinmun, a South Korean daily, reported Monday that Seoul dispatched a response to the North’s ultimatum, expressing an intention to demolish the buildings voluntarily. Yet Seoul’s response also contained a counteroffer calling for discussions over how South Korea may partake in the North’s plan to develop the Wonsan-Kalma coastal resort, the report said.

If true, the exchange between the two Koreas fulfills the requirements set by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Oct. 23, when he made the bombshell instruction to remove all South Korean-owned buildings from Mount Kumgang through an agreement with authorities in Seoul. The South’s Unification Ministry however responded to the report on Monday by saying its counteroffer did not relate specifically to the Wonsan-Kalma project but rather the necessity of a joint tourist area on the peninsula’s eastern coast.

In an effort to salvage its stake in Mount Kumgang, one of its two linchpin economic cooperation projects with the North, South Korea attempted throughout last month to open talks with North Korean officials on the issue, but was met with cold rejection from Pyongyang. For 10 years after 1998, nearly a million South Korean tourists visited the approximately 200-square-mile resort on Mount Kumgang through tours operated by the South Korean company Hyundai Asan.

Yet the still-unexplained killing of a female South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier in 2008 prompted Seoul to suspend the tours indefinitely, leaving idle the country’s nearly-trillion-won investment in infrastructure in the area.

Last year’s rapprochement between the two Koreas raised the possibility of the project - along with the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the other major enterprise - being revived, and their leaders signed a commitment to normalize the project “as soon as conditions allow” during their third summit in Pyongyang in September 2018. Yet Washington’s refusal to grant exceptions to international sanctions on the North upended that possibility, prompting North Korea to accuse Seoul of toadying up to the United States.

Faced with the possibility the North may demolish South Korean buildings at Mount Kumgang and broadcast or publish footage of the process as a symbolic message to Seoul, the South Korean government appears to have opted to voluntary engage in at least a partial demolition of its properties at the mountain resort, to avoid international scrutiny over the significant deterioration of inter-Korean relations this year.

South Korea’s Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said during a television debate hosted by the Kwanhun Club Monday that while the North was insisting that demolition was the only option, Seoul itself feels it is necessary to “deal with [the buildings left unmanaged] throughout the 11 years since the Mount Kumgang tours have been suspended.”

Kim notably alluded to the 340 or so shipping containers repurposed into temporary homes for workers at the resort that have been neglected for over a decade, suggesting these makeshift buildings could be the subject of South Korea’s voluntary demolition project at the resort.

Another South Korean official confirmed as much, saying that Seoul would first destroy these containers while simultaneously pursing talks with the North, in what appears to be a last-ditch effort to prevent the complete eviction of South Korean ownership at Mount Kumgang. Other South Korean-owned buildings at the resort, like those that house a theater, hot springs or hotels, “cannot be used domestically even if they are taken down and brought” to the South, the official said. Yet it may be unlikely that North Korea will accept what appears to amount to a stalling tactic by Seoul. Signs are already apparent that the regime has embarked on plans to redevelop Mount Kumgang - as well as outlying areas encompassing nearby Wonsan and the Masikryong Ski Resort - into a massive tourism area aimed at Chinese and Russian tourists in line with Kim Jong-un’s personal ambitions.

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