(ATTN: ADDS minister's remarks in paras 7-12; CHANGES photo)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Oct. 30 (Yonhap) -- A face-to-face meeting is necessary to discuss the fate of a long-suspended joint tour program to Mount Kumgang on North Korea's east coast, the unification ministry said Wednesday, despite Pyongyang's refusal to hold such a meeting.
On Tuesday, North Korea turned down Seoul's offer to hold working-level talks, which was made in response to the North's demand that all South Korean-built facilities at the mountain resort be removed "on an agreed-upon date."
"For a mutual agreement, mutual consultation is necessary, and for consultation, we need to resolve the issue through a meeting," ministry spokesperson Lee Sang-in told a regular press briefing. "Our stance remains unchanged from that position."
North Korea's apparent threat to end the joint business came after its state media reported last week that the North's leader Kim Jong-un ordered the destruction of all "unpleasant-looking" facilities built by the South at the mountain resort.
The North made an official offer to discuss the issue in writing on Friday, but Seoul has said that all pending issues in inter-Korean relations should be resolved through dialogue and consultations.
Following the North's refusal to sit face-to-face with the South, the government is in talks with related business operators to draw up countermeasures, including whether to ask the North again for talks.
Seoul has also been reviewing "creative solutions" to propose to the North, including individual visits to the mountain, to prevent the complete closure of the joint project at a time when a full-fledged resumption of the project is unlikely due to U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang.
On Wednesday, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul suggested that individual trips could be an option.
"Safety of tourists is the most important issue in individual visits. We will be able to find detailed ways to realize such visits once inter-Korean consultations take place," the minister said during a parliamentary session.
He also said that jointly developing a special tourism zone on the east coast, as was agreed by President Moon Jae-in and the North's leader during their summit in September last year, could be an agenda during the proposed meeting.
Asked whether Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun could visit the North to discuss the issue amid Pyongyang's refusal to have a face-to-face meeting with the South, the minister said the government is in talks with the company, with "various possibilities open."
Hyundai Asan Corp. is a South Korean firm that owns a 50-year license for the Mount Kumgang tour business.
"We will do our best to make sure that the North does not take unilateral action," he said.
Launched in 1998, the tour program was regarded as a major inter-Korean cooperative project until it was suspended in 2008 after a female tourist was shot to death by a North Korean guard.
Moon and Kim agreed in September last year to resume the tour program and the Kaesong industrial park as soon as conditions are met. But the two projects have remained stalled amid the little progress in the North's denuclearization negotiations with the United States.
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