By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Oct. 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is willing to discuss ways to guarantee the safety of tourists to North Korea's Mount Kumgang in a step toward allowing individual visits to the mountain if Pyongyang agrees to hold talks about a long-suspended joint tour program to the mountain, an official said Tuesday.
South Korea made the proposal Monday to hold working-level talks, three days after Pyongyang asked Seoul to come and remove its resort facilities at Mount Kumgang, a follow-up on leader Kim Jong-un's order for their destruction.
The North's demand was seen as an expression of its frustration with the long-suspended tour project to the scenic mountain amid international sanctions on Pyongyang and allowing individual visits to the mountain is considered a way to restart tours without violating sanctions.
"We think that individual tours (to Mount Kumgang) could be possible through discussions with the North on the safety issue," the ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity. "Making sure our people's safety trip is the biggest issue for the government."
Asked if the safety issue could be discussed during the proposed talks, he said the matter is part of "creative solutions" that the government is reviewing to propose to the North as ways to prevent the complete closure of the joint project at the mountain.
Launched in 1998, the tour program to the North's mountain was regarded as a major inter-Korean cooperative project. It was suspended, however, in 2008 after a female tourist was shot to death by a North Korean guard.
A safety guarantee has been regarded as a prerequisite for the resumption of the tour program. North Korea has not made an official apology for the woman's killing.
Last week, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that individual visits to the North's mountain are not subject to U.N. sanctions and that it is up to the unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs as whether to approve them or not.
Her remarks came a day after North Korea's state media reported that Kim toured Mount Kumgang and criticized dependence on South Korea in operating the tour program there. He instructed the destruction of all "unpleasant-looking" facilities built by South Korea and construction of an international tourist zone of its own.
Meanwhile, North Korea has not responded to Seoul's recent proposal to hold working-level talks to discuss the fate of the Mount Kumgang resort, the unification ministry official said.
North Korea earlier asked South Korea to remove its facilities at the mountain "on an agreed-upon date," saying that details will be discussed through the exchange of documents, not face-to-face meetings.
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