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(LEAD) Seoul to offer talks to N. Korea again over Mount Kumgang issue: source

All Headlines 16:52 November 05, 2019

(ATTN: UPDATES with comments by minister, analyst from 8th para; CHANGES photo)
By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Nov. 5 (Yonhap) -- South Korea plans to propose working-level talks with North Korea again to discuss the fate of a long-suspended joint tour program to Mount Kumgang in the communist nation, a government source said Tuesday.

South Korea made a dialogue offer last week in a counterproposal to North Korea's demand that Seoul remove all of its long-abandoned facilities from the mountain resort. But North Korea rejected the offer the next day, insisting on discussing the matter in writing.

Seoul's new proposal could be sent to the North as early as this week following the government's consultations with related business operators, according to the source.

North Korea's apparent threat to end the joint business came after its state media reported last month 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 soon made an official offer to discuss the issue in writing, but Seoul has said that all pending issues in inter-Korean relations should be resolved through dialogue and consultations.

A unification ministry official said the government is not considering countermeasures to the North's possible unilateral removal of the facilities, as there was an order from Kim to have an agreement with the South to address the issue.

"Our position remains unchanged that an agreement and a meeting are necessary," the ministry official said. "When a meeting takes place, we can discuss various issues."

Analysts also say Pyongyang is unlikely to remove the facilities in a unilateral move, as inter-Korean cooperation is crucial in the North's broader efforts to develop the mountain resort as an international tourist destination.

"For North Korea too, reasonable resolution of the Mount Kumgang issue is necessary," Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification, said during a press conference in Seoul.

If North Korea forces Hyundai Asan Corp. out from the business, negative consequences on its overall tourism industry will be unavoidable, he said. Hyundai Asan is a South Korean firm that owns a 50-year license for the Mount Kumgang tour business.

"Many of the North's tour businesses have questionable profitability when they exclude South Korean tourists," Cho said. "In case of such a unilateral action, it will be more difficult for Seoul to cooperate with the North in the tourism sector."

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said the North's threat to end the joint tour program appears to be aimed at urging Seoul to promptly restart the cross-border project, which has remained stalled for over a decade.

"We are closely consulting with related business operators, such as Hyundai Asan, but to resolve the Mount Kumgang issue we need face-to-face talks with the North among other things," the minister said during a parliamentary session in Seoul.

Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul speaks during a plenary session of the special committee on budget and accounts at the National Assembly in Seoul on Nov. 5, 2019. (Yonhap)


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