By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, May 18 (Yonhap) -- A decade ago, Choi Yo-sik was running a lucrative laundry business at a special tourism zone in North Korea. But the good times didn't last, as years of tensions on the Korean Peninsula have made it impossible for him to ply his trade and left him penniless.
Now, the 68-year-old South Korean businessman is pinning his hopes on the chance that his business could be revived as U.S. President Donald Trump is set to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
The June 12 summit -- the first between the leaders of the two enemies since the 1950-53 Korean War -- is primarily meant to be a forum for discussion on how to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons.
Choi believes that improved ties between the United States and North Korea could eventually lead to the lifting of international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang, which in turn could offer new business opportunities in the isolated country, including a chance to jump-start his stalled laundry business.
"I was overwhelmed with tears when I heard the news of the summit as it offered a ray of hope that the problem that has left me waiting for a decade could finally be resolved," Choi said in a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency.
North Korea's unpredictable nature was evident earlier this week when Pyongyang threatened to cancel the historic summit over ongoing military exercises between South Korea and the U.S., while protesting U.S. demands for the "unilateral" dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program.
Trump said Wednesday that he will see "what happens" with regard to the fate of the summit. Most pundits here have said that the meeting can still take place, with Pyongyang's latest grumbling an apparent part of its strategy to strengthen its position ahead of the meeting.
In 2005, Choi invested 1.2 billion won (US$1.1 million) in laundry facilities at Mount Kumgang, a scenic mountain resort on the North's east coast, and provided laundry services for South Korean tourists.
The tour program -- launched in 1998 -- had been a symbol of reconciliation between the two divided countries, as well as a key cash cow for the North.
The mountain resort also served as a venue for temporary reunions of families in South and North Korea separated following the Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire and not a peace treaty.
The cross-border tour program attracted more than 1.95 million visitors, including President Moon Jae-in. In 2004, Moon, then a presidential aide for liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, visited Mount Kumgang for a family reunion.
The two Koreas are set to stage a fresh round of family reunions in August as part of Moon's summit deal with Kim in April, which Choi said could boost prospects for the resumption of the tour program.
South Korea has suspended tours since July 2008 after a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard near the resort.
Cho Nam-kyu, 49, an employee at an education company in Seoul, said he would like to travel to Mount Kumgang with his wife and mother-in-law if the tour program is resumed, noting it has been on his bucket list.
The shutdown of the tour program dealt a crushing blow to businesses run by Choi and dozens of other South Korean investors, including Hyundai Asan, the inter-Korean business arm of Hyundai Group.
"I thought I made good preparations for my retirement as my laundry business generated about 100 million won in sales per month," Choi said "But instead I lost my shirt."
In 2008, Choi said he thought the tour program could be up and running again just days after the shooting accident, and he never thought that the suspension would last a decade.
Other South Korean businessmen who invested in Mount Kumgang went through similar hard times.
Lee Jong-heung said his investment of 4.9 billion won in a beer factory and other businesses in Mount Kumgang went up in smoke after the tour program was halted.
"I got out of Mount Kumgang without making a single dime," Lee said.
Some of the South Korean investors became drivers for hire and found work on construction sites, and are reluctant to say what they are doing for a living after becoming destitute overnight from running their own businesses in North Korea, Choi said.
Kim Hee-joo, who left his business in Mount Kumgang empty-handed in 2008 after investing some 1.7 billion won, said he was so desperate that he actually thought of selling his kidney for 40 million won to pay for his children's education.
But Kim said he later dropped the plan due to strong opposition from his family.
Kim is among the South Korean investors in Mount Kumgang who hope that Trump's summit with Kim can set the stage for the resumption of the tour program.
But officials and analysts said South and North Korea are unlikely to resume the long-stalled tour program any time soon as the U.S. has vowed to keep pressure on Pyongyang until it fully abandons its nuclear weapons program.
The resumption of the tour program and a joint factory park in North Korea's border city of Kaesong hinges on the resolution of North Korea's nuclear dispute, a South Korean official handling the issue said.
Lee Seong-hyon, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, an independent think tank near Seoul, said the outcome of the Trump-Kim summit will be the bellwether for the tour program.
"Details of economic projects are likely to be announced at the autumn summit between Moon and Kim, with Trump's blessing," Lee said. "However, if the Trump-Kim summit goes sour, that will be a bad sign for inter-Korean economic projects."
Also complicating the matter of the resumption of the tour program at Mount Kumgang are U.N. sanctions that ban, among other things, transfers of bulk cash to Pyongyang. North Korea has been under tough U.N. sanctions over its nuclear and missile tests.
Hyundai Group, which had operated a joint tour program at Mount Kumgang, has recently created a task force to prepare for the possible resumption of the tour program and other inter-Korean economic projects.
North Korea revoked Hyundai's monopoly over the stalled tourist program in 2011. It remains unclear if Hyundai will be allowed to operate the tour program in the case of its resumption.
Hyundai -- which invested $1.25 billion in North Korea -- estimated that it has suffered some 1.5 trillion won in lost revenue following the suspension of the tour program.
"I felt helpless as there was nothing I could do in the past," Choi said. "Now, I am worried about what to do because I have no money even if the tour program resumes."
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