South Korea holds key to resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism

Despite an agreement between North Korea and South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Group to restart their joint tourism business to Mount Kumgang, it remains unclear whether and when South Korean tourists will again be able to visit the scenic resort on the North’s eastern coast.

The two sides said in a joint press release issued after a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun that, “It was decided to resume the suspended tourism to Mt. Kumgang as soon as possible.”

The North also offered a new carrot to allow the tour of the mountain’s highest peak, called Pirobong.

The cross-border tourism project requires the South Korean government’s support and the latest compromise with its communist neighbor may pave the way for thawing icy inter-Korean relations.

South Korean government officials, however, maintained a cautious attitude before the Hyundai boss returns to Seoul. Hyun is expected to come back to the South later Monday after a weeklong stay in Pyongyang where she met the North’s leader.

“The government needs to review details of the agreement (between North Korea and Hyundai) after chairwoman Hyun returns,” a senior government official said on the condition of anonymity. He said the government had no prior consultations with Hyundai on the announced deal.

“With regard to the issue of resuming tourism to Mount Kumgang, we should discuss preconditions,” he said, adding it is a matter of principles and flexibility.

South Korea apparently wants to normalize the inter-Korean venture but it can’t ignore the international community’s campaign to punish the North for its second nuclear test in May. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 calls on each country to tighten financial curbs on Pyongyang and impose other various sanctions on it.

The resolution “calls upon all Member states and international financial and credit institutions not to enter into new commitments for grants, financial assistance, or concessional loans to the DPRK (North Korea), except for humanitarian and developmental purposes directly addressing the needs of the civilian population.”

Although the inter-Korean tourism business may not be directly affected by the resolution, it could be a burden for South Korean officials committed to full cooperation with the U.S. to implement the resolution.

Christopher Hill, who was Washington’s point man on Pyongyang under the Bush administration, openly expressed concerns over the steady inflow of hard currency into the North through the tour program, while the current Obama administration has not revealed its official position on it.

Mount Kumgang had been a popular tourist spot for South Koreans since it was opened to them in 1998 as a symbol of inter-Korean rapproachment spearheaded by the liberal government of Kim Dae-jung at that time. More than one million people made the trip before the tour business was suspended in July last year due to the shooting death of a South Korean housewife by a North Korean coast guard there. The woman was shot after she strayed into an off-limit zone near the resort and snubbed repeating warnings, according to a preliminary probe.

“We are checking related stipulations in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874,” a foreign ministry official said.

Resuming the business with the North is also a matter of principle for the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, experts say.

It has demanded three preconditions for its resumption _ a formal apology from the North, security guarantees for South Koreans, and a joint investigation into the shooting incident.

The joint press release by North Korea and Hyundai reads, “All necessary facilities and security for tourism will be reliably provided according to the special measure taken by Kim Jong-il, chairman of the National Defense Commission.”

North Korean officials may also have offered an unofficial apology to Hyun.

“A question is that the South Korean government show some flexibility in the format of any joint investigation,” Yu Ho-yul, a North Korean studies professor at Seoul’s Korea University. “North Korea has tossed the ball into the South Korean court.”

Whether and how soon the tour program will be restarted depends on the political will of the Lee administration, he added.

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