(ATTN: ADDS photo, more info throughout)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has suspended its plan to remove South Korean-built facilities at the Mount Kumgang resort on its east coast as part of efforts to prevent the spread of a new strain of coronavirus, the unification ministry said Friday.
Pyongyang notified Seoul of the decision Thursday through a telephone line they opened after the two Koreas agreed to temporarily shut down their joint liaison office in the North's border town of Kaesong earlier in the day until the threat from the virus is "completely eased."
"We need additional consultations with regard to when we resume relevant discussions," the ministry's acting spokesperson, Yoh Sang-key, told a regular press briefing.
In October, the North demanded the South tear down all "unpleasant-looking" facilities it had built at the mountain resort as part of a now suspended joint tourism project, saying the country will build a new international tourist destination of its own.
The two Koreas have remained far apart over the issue, with Seoul insisting on having face-to-face talks first to discuss the matter.
Launched in 1998, the Mount Kumgang tour project was regarded as a key symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and economic cooperation until it was suspended in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead near the resort for allegedly trespassing in an off-limits area.
North Korea's latest decision came as Pyongyang has been stepping up efforts to prevent the spread of the deadly illness, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
According to Chinese authorities, the new virus has killed at least 213 and infected more than 9,690 in the country.
North Korea earlier declared the launch of a national emergency system against the new virus and asked the South to temporarily close their liaison office as part of the efforts.
South Korea has confirmed seven cases of the pneumonia-like illness since early last week. North Korea has not yet reported any confirmed infections.
Following the liaison office shutdown, the two Koreas opened telephone and fax lines Thursday night to continue communications. They will likely have regular contacts twice a day as they did when operating the Kaesong liaison office, according to the spokesperson.
The inter-Korean liaison office was launched in 2018 to support exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas following a summit agreement between their leaders in April that year.
They agreed to hold a weekly meeting of co-heads of the office -- one from each side -- but no such meeting has been held since February last year amid chilled cross-border relations.
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