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(LEAD) N. Korea threatens to seize S. Korean assets at Mount Kumgang

All Headlines 20:42 March 18, 2010

(ATTN: UPDATES throughout with S. Korean ministry's confirmation, response, Hyundai Asan chief's offer to resign)

SEOUL, March 18 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has informed South Korea of its plan to look into all of the real estate owned by South Koreans inside the scenic mountain resort along its east coast, the South's government confirmed Thursday, as Pyongyang apparently grows impatient with Seoul's refusal to allow its citizens to travel there.

In a recently faxed message to the South Korean government, the North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a state agency in charge of cross-border exchanges, said, "South Korean figures who possess real estate in the Mount Kumgang district should come to Mount Kumgang by March 25," according to the Unification Ministry, which deals with inter-Korean affairs.

The North went on to say, "All assets of those who do not meet the deadline will be confiscated and they won't be able to visit Mount Kumgang again."

An inter-Korean tourism program to the mountain, once a cash cow for the impoverished North, has been suspended since the summer of 2008, when a female South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier while traveling there. A luxury hotel, a golf course, and other facilities built by the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai there have since remained idle. A similar joint tour business to the ancient city of Kaesong, just north of the two Koreas' border, has been also halted.

North Korea, feeling the pinch of U.N. sanctions imposed for its missile and nuclear tests, has called for the South to immediately resume the tours.

In its statement issued March 4, the North Korean committee said, "We would open the door to the tour of the Kaesong area from March and that of Mount Kumgang from April."

It said it may revoke all accords and contracts on the business unless the South stops blocking the resumption of the joint ventures.

South Korea has urged the North to first fully guarantee the safety of South Korean tourists. Related working-level talks between the two sides last month failed to yield a deal due to differences over details on a security guarantee.

The Unification Ministry expressed regret over the North's latest threat.

"North Korea's measure violates agreements between South and North Korean authorities, as well as between their tourism business operators," the ministry said in a press release. "It also goes against international practice."

It stressed the North should abide by accords with the South, and all pending issues should be resolved through dialogue.

"As the tours to Mount Kumgang and Kaesong are issues directly related with our people's safety, there is no change in the government's existing position that it will resume them only after the matters are settled," it added.

Meanwhile, the head of the South Korean operator of the tours offered to resign to take responsibility for snowballing losses from the suspended businesses.

Cho Gun-shik, president of Hyundai Asan Corp., expressed his intent to step down in a statement emailed to all staff earlier Thursday, company officials said.

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