By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Oct. 23 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's order to remove South Korean-built facilities at the North's Mount Kumgang resort appears to be an ultimatum designed to test Seoul's willingness to restart the long-suspended, lucrative project before seeking development of its own, experts said.
Denouncing the long-abandoned resort facilities as an eyesore, Kim ordered their removal after discussions with the South and said the North should build "new modern service facilities our own way," according to the Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday.
Kim even criticized his "predecessors" for trying to depend on others to develop the area, apparently referring to his late father and former leader Kim Jong-il's decision to open the scenic mountain to South Korean developers.
"We need to pay attention to the fact that Kim has rolled out a new, crucial principal not to rely on the South for its economic development," Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far East Studies at Kyungnam University, said. "It is an ultimatum to the South, showing a new path it will take in response to Seoul's inaction."
Launched in 1998, the Mount Kumgang tour program was a key symbol of reconciliation between the two Koreas until it was suspended in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was killed by a North Korean guard. The project also served as a key cash cow for the impoverished North.
Along with a joint industrial park in the North's border town of Kaesong, the Mount Kumgang tour program is now one of a series of cross-border projects that have been at a standstill amid the limited progress in the North's nuclear negotiations with the United States.
While the leaders of the two Koreas agreed in September last year to resume the tour program and the operation of the Kaesong complex when conditions are met, Washington has been wary their resumption could undermine the global sanctions regime against Pyongyang.
"The North is apparently trying to raise the stakes to pressure the South for a resumption of the tour program, and at the same time, sending a message that it will seek a new path, judging that the resumption is unlikely in the near future," Lim said.
Despite this strong message, the North has left some room for discussions, with Kim ordering officials to have talks with the "relevant unit of the South side" for an agreement to remove the buildings. If it takes place, the meeting would be a rare encounter between the two sides at a time when the North has remained silent on Seoul's repeated calls for talks.
"The North will likely try to check the South's will to resume the tour program during the anticipated meeting, though it seems unlikely for Seoul to change its stance on the project all of a sudden when there is no visible progress in the nuclear talks," Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said.
The denuclearization negotiations have remained in limbo following the breakdown of the working-level nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea in Stockholm early this month.
It was the two countries' first meeting since the collapse of the Hanoi summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in February, but the talks broke down again, with Pyongyang accusing Washington of failing to come up with a new proposal.
In the face of a drawn-out deadlock, Pyongyang has been intensifying its criticism of the U.S. while increasing calls for stepped-up efforts for self-reliance to fight sanctions.
"Kim's latest order, even by criticizing his father's policy, is a demonstration of great confidence in line with the regime's increasing call for self-reliance," Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said.
Seoul appeared to have been caught by surprise by the North Korean report, as it has been highlighting the importance of economic cooperation between the two sides as part of its broader pitch to build a "peace economy."
South Korea has said that active economic cooperation with North Korea can ease cross-border tensions and generate a mood for progress in denuclearization talks.
Following the KCNA report, Seoul's unification ministry said that it is trying to figure out the intention behind Kim's remarks.
The ministry said Seoul will have talks with the North whenever Pyongyang proposes one, to protect the property of its people, respect the spirit of inter-Korean summit agreements and continue to push for resumption of the suspended tour program to the mountain.
"The point is that the North has now declared its stance not to just sit idle and wait for the resumption of cross-border economic projects," professor Lim said. "North Korea is seeking a fundamental transformation in its relations with the South."
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