Seoul offers talks with Pyongyang over mountain resort project row

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Yangdok Hot Spring Resort. (Reuters)
Updated 29 October 2019

Seoul offers talks with Pyongyang over mountain resort project row

  • 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

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.

Hong Kong campus drama persists as city gears for elections

Updated 21 November 2019

Hong Kong campus drama persists as city gears for elections

  • At least a few dozen protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University resisted pleas to surrender amid fears of being arrested
  • Some 1,000 protesters have either surrendered or been stopped while trying to flee

HONG KONG: A small but determined group of protesters remained holed up Thursday inside a Hong Kong university campus as the city’s largest pro-Beijing political party urged voters to “kick out the black force” in upcoming elections seen as a key gauge of public support for anti-government protests.

At least a few dozen protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, that has been ringed by police for days, resisted pleas to surrender amid fears of being arrested. They are the holdouts from a much larger group that occupied the campus after battling police over the weekend.

Some 1,000 protesters have either surrendered or been stopped while trying to flee.

The city’s largest political party slammed the flareup in violence in the past week and urged some 4.1 million voters to use the ballot box this Sunday to reject the “black force” that had thrown the semi-autonomous Chinese territory into unprecedented turmoil since June.

“The black force say they want to fight for freedom but now people cannot even express their views freely. We have even been stripped of our right to go to school and work,” said Starry Lee, who heads the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

The party is contesting 181 of the 452 district council seats, a low-level neighborhood election held every four years. For the first time, all the seats will be contested and a huge win by the pro-democracy bloc could bolster the legitimacy of the protest movement.

Protesters, who believe China is increasing control over the territory, are demanding fully democratic elections and an independent probe into alleged police brutality against demonstrators.

The government, which rejected the demands, has warned the polls could be delayed if violence persists and transport links are disrupted. Earlier Thursday, there were long lines and delays at some subway stations. Some stations remained shut and protesters tried to block train doors from closing but the disruption was relatively minor.

A Hong Kong restaurant owner was deported from Singapore for organizing an illegal gathering last month to discuss the protests, Singapore media reported.

Alex Yeung, who founded the Wah Kee restaurant chain and is a staunch pro-Beijing supporter, will also be barred from entering Singapore without prior approval.

In a video posted on YouTube from Singapore’s Changi Airport, Yeung said he has been warned to refrain from any criminal conduct. He didn’t say where he was heading but urged Hong Kong residents to cast their vote on Sunday to “reject violence and support peace.”

Lee said the party’s candidates have faced threats and some have even been beaten up but they are ready for a “tough battle.”

“We believe that if we are united and if everyone comes out to vote, Hong Kong can be restored and violence can be stopped,” she said at a campaign event in a park downtown with dozens of the party’s candidates.

Lee and some candidates kicked black footballs as a symbolic gesture to banish the black-clad protesters.

More than 5,000 have been arrested since the protests started in June over a now-abandoned extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. The protest has since swelled into an anti-China movement as many fear a loss of freedoms guaranteed to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese control in 1997.

A 12-year-old became the youngest protester to be convicted Thursday after pleading guilty to spraying graffiti outside a police station and subway exit last month, the South China Morning Post reported. A lawyer for the student reportedly said he was remorseful and acted on impulse. The court will sentence him on Dec. 19.

Pressure ratcheted up on Hong Kong as the US Congress approved legislation late Wednesday to sanction officials who carry out human rights abuses and require an annual review of the favorable trade status that Washington grants Hong Kong.

Another bill bans export of tear gas and other non-lethal tools to Hong Kong, President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bills into law, which is sure to anger China and jeopardize trade talks between the two economic giants.

“If the US continues to make the wrong moves, China will be taking strong countermeasures for sure,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said. “No one should underestimate China’s determination to safeguard the interests of national sovereign security and development, to implement the ‘one country, two systems’ policy and to safeguard Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”

Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary Paul Chan said that the US legislation was baseless and an unnecessary meddling into the city’s affairs. He urged Washington to reconsider, warning it would also hurt the interest of more than 1,000 American businesses in Asia’s top financial hub.