SEOUL: South Korea on Monday offered to hold working-level talks with North Korea on how to handle the North’s Mt. Kumgang resort, which leader Kim Jong Un recently branded as “shabby.”
The proposal for talks came days after North Korean authorities demanded that South Korea remove all of its resort facilities following Kim’s orders amid a general cooling in relations between the two Koreas in tandem with stalled denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and the US.
“The government proposed a working-level meeting be held between the authorities of the two Koreas to discuss the issues raised by the North,” said Lee Sang-min, spokesman for the Unification Ministry which overseas inter-Korean affairs.
“It is our government’s consistent stance that all pending issues in inter-Korean relations should be resolved through dialogue and consultations. It could hurt inter-Korean relations if a unilateral measure is taken against the property rights of South Korean businesses,” he added.
If the talks are held, officials from Hyundai Asan, the operator of the long-stalled Mt. Kumgang resort project, will accompany the government delegation, according to the ministry.
The proposal was delivered to the North through a liaison office in the North’s border city of Kaesong, and the date and venue were not specified, it said.
Located on the east coast of North Korea, Mt. Kumgang is one of the best-known mountains in the country.
The Mt. Kumgang tour program was launched in 1998 as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation following the first-ever cross-border summit in Pyongyang between then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il.
But the operation of the resort tour has been suspended since 2008 when a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.
A series of North Korean provocations, including the attack on the Yeonpyeong Island of South Korea and the regime’s nuclear tests, hampered the resumption of the cross-border projects.
Focused on embracing the poverty-stricken northern brethren, the Moon Jae-in administration has sought to restart the tour project, along with the operation of a joint industrial complex in the North’s Kaesong.
Seoul’s government asked the Americans to lift sanctions partially to restart mountain tourism, but US President Donald Trump’s administration was concerned such a move could undermine US-led international economic sanctions aimed at tightening the communist state’s purse strings until the North was committed to full denuclearization.
Whether or not the North will accept the South’s offer for talks remains unclear.
“It’s totally up to the North’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un,” Yang Moo-jin, professor of Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies said.
“The North made it clear that it would remove South Korean facilities in writing, but the South offered to hold in-person talks. Only the North Korean leader can make a decision on this now.”
Any pullout of South Korean buildings from the inter-Korean resort would be a blow for Moon’s peace initiative and the North’s denuclearization negotiations, said professor Kim Dong-yup, of Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
“In his new year’s message, Kim Jong Un pledged the resumption of the Mt. Kumgang resort and Kaesong industrial factory. With his patience thinning, Kim would take the option of excluding the South regarding the projects, further straining ties with the South,” he added.
Meanwhile, two US B-52 strategic bombers flew over the eastern waters of the peninsula last week, according to a private aviation tracker.
The bombers took off from Guam and conducted a mission in the East Sea, or the Sea of Japan, Aircraft Spots said on a Twitter post.
The B-52 had often been deployed to the peninsula for joint operations with the South Korean military, but they have been suspended since Trump and Kim met in Singapore in April last year.
Experts speculate the mission appears to have been designed to send a warning to North Korea in response to its recent testing of short-range ballistic missiles and guided rockets.
“The main purpose of the bomber mission seems to have been checking activities by Russia, which has broadened the radius of its joint exercise into the East Sea, but B-52’s reappearance near the peninsula is being interpreted as a warning message to the North,” Kim Dae-young, an analyst with the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy said.