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(LEAD) S. Korea mulling taking troubled tour project with N. Korea to U.N. agency

All Headlines 11:02 July 08, 2011

(ATTN: UPDATES with no immediate comment from UN agency in 9th para and minor edits)

SEOUL, July 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is considering taking a troubled tour program with North Korea to a meeting of the United Nations tourism agency set to be held in the country later this year, an official said.

The move comes amid a looming dispute between the two countries over South Korean assets seized from a stalled joint tour site at the North's scenic mountain resort.

The North has recently warned that it will take unspecified legal steps to dispose of the assets at Mount Kumgang unless South Korean company officials visit the resort by July 13 with plans on how to handle their assets estimated to be worth about 300 billion won (US$278 million).

South Korea has vowed to protect the property rights of South Korean firms, though it has also suggested it will not allow company officials to visit the North's resort.

South Korea has said it would explore diplomatic and other possible means to safeguard the interests of its tour operators in case Pyongyang takes unilateral actions.

As part of these measures, South Korea could study ways to highlight the North's unjustified move at the General Assembly of the U.N. World Tourism Organization to be held in the southeastern city of Gyeongju in October, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.

Still, it was not immediately clear whether the U.N. agency, which serves as a global forum for tourism policy issues, has any effective tools to deal with the North's possible disposal of South Korean assets.

The U.N. agency has 154 member states, including North Korea and its key ally China.

The agency did not immediately return an email from Yonhap News Agency seeking comment.

The North has stepped up pressure on South Korea over the joint tour project in recent years in what analysts say could be aimed at resuming the tour program that once served as key cash cow for the North.

The two Koreas launched the joint program in 1998 as part of reconciliation efforts. But Seoul suspended it following the shooting death of a South Korean female tourist near the resort in 2008.

Last year, the North seized or froze several South Korean assets at the resort in anger over the stalled project. The North has recently announced a law designed to develop the resort as a special zone for international tours.

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