(LEAD) Minister, biz leaders discuss N.K. demand for facility removal from Mount Kumgang
(ATTN: UPDATES headline, first 2 paras; ADDS minister and participants' comments in paras 4-5)
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) -- Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul was met with the heads of South Korean operators of now-suspended tours to North Korea's Mount Kumgang on Thursday to discuss how to handle Pyongyang's demand for the removal of all resort facilities from the mountain.
Kim's meeting with Bae Kook-hwan, president of Hyundai Asan Corp., and Ahn Young-bae, president of the state-run Korean Tourism Organization (KTO), came days after the North rejected Seoul's offer to hold talks about its demand for the removal of all South Korean-built resort facilities.
The North has said it will build its own international tourist zone at the mountain. The demand was seen as an expression of the North's frustration with the long-suspended tour project amid international sanctions on Pyongyang.
"As we are facing a grave situation, I think we need to work together in finding solutions by sharing information and gathering wisdom," Kim said at the start of the meeting. "I asked you to come here since I think it is important to discuss not just technical issues but also the overall (policy) direction."
Expressing frustration at Pyongyang's recent demand that their facilities be removed, the heads of Hyundai Asan and KTO urged the government to do its best to protect the property rights of its citizens.
The South Korean government and businesses invested in building resort facilities, including hotels and restaurants necessary for tours to the mountain. In particular, Hyundai Asan, the operator of the tour program, spent around 800 billion won (US$68.7 million).
The government has said that the top priority is to protect the property rights of South Korean businesses in dealing with the Mount Kumgang issue.
Launched in 1998, the tour program to Mount Kumgang was regarded as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and economic cooperation.
Around 2 million South Korean tourists visited the scenic mounting until the project came to a halt in 2008 after a South Korean traveler was shot to death by a North Korean solider. Most of the facilities constructed there have been gathering dust ever since.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed in September last year to normalize the tour program when relevant conditions are met.
Little progress on its resumption has been made, however, amid worries that it could hurt global economic sanctions amid little progress in denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
South Korean recently hinted at allowing individual trips to Mount Kumgang if progress is made in talks with North Korea in guaranteeing the safety of its citizens. It is still unclear whether the North will accept such a proposal at a time when it is seeking to remove all South Korean facilities from the mountain.
The North recently turned down Seoul's offer for a working-level meeting to talk about the Mount Kumgang issue, insisting on disusing the matter through the exchange of documents, without face-to-face contacts.
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