SEOUL, Oct 31, 2019, Hankyoreh. North Korea has rejected a proposal for working-level talks about Mt. Kumgang, at least for now, increasing the likelihood of an inter-Korean dispute over tourism to the mountain resort, and especially the fate of South Korean facilities located there. The failure to find a solution puts inter-Korean relations in danger of further deterioration, Hankyoreh reported.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced on Oct. 29 that North Korea prefers to deliberate the Mt. Kumgang issue through correspondence without holding working-level talks in person. North Korea specified that the matters to be discussed in the correspondence were the plan and schedule for demolishing current facilities.
“We sent a proposal [to North Korea on Oct. 28] for intergovernmental working-level talks to find a solution to the Mt. Kumgang tourism issue. This morning, North Korea sent a response, signed by the Mt. Kumgang International Tourism Bureau, to the Unification Ministry and Hyundai-Asan,” the Unification Ministry said.
In this message, North Korea expressed its desire to proceed in line with its original plan, without answering the proposal made by Seoul on Monday for working-level talks. Seoul had sent that proposal through two channels of communication, one linking the Unification Ministry with North Korea’s Korea-Asia-Pacific Peace Committee and the other connecting Hyundai-Asan with the Mt. Kumgang International Tourism Bureau.
But of those two channels, the only response came from the Mt. Kumgang International Tourism Bureau, the organization that had made the proposal on Oct. 25 for correspondence-based deliberations about South Korea sending a team to tear down the buildings at an agreed-upon time. There was no response from the Korea-Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, the body external to the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) that represented North Korea in its agreement with Hyundai-Asan about launching the Mt. Kumgang tourism cooperation project in November 1998. The committee is chaired by WPK Vice Chairman Kim Yong-chol. This appears to reflect North Korea’s desire to avoid intergovernmental deliberations.
North Korea also limited the topics to be settled through correspondence to the plan and schedule for demolishing the facilities. That represents quite a departure from Seoul’s proposal the previous day for “deliberations on the Mt. Kumgang tourism issue, including the issue [of facility removal] proposed by North Koreans.” In effect, Seoul was proposing working-level talks about ways to resume, and revitalize, tourism to Mt. Kumgang. But its proposal was brushed aside by Pyongyang, which said that only the issue of facility demolition need be discussed and that there is therefore no reason for intergovernmental working-level talks, which could tackle a broader agenda.
North Korea’s approach appears to be primarily focused on carrying out leader Kim Jong-un’s direct orders to tear down the South Korean facilities, which he delivered while announcing his plan for an “international tourism and culture district” at Mt. Kumgang. “We’ll have to look into this further, but the apparent intention is to limit [the agenda of inter-Korean deliberations] to the issue of facility removal, since their removal was mentioned by Kim Jong-un himself,” said an official with the Unification Ministry.
Seoul can only reconfirm generic goal of finding solution through dialogue
North Korea’s rejection of working-level talks seems to be putting Seoul in a serious bind. Instead of immediately announcing a specific plan of action, the government only reconfirmed the generic goal of finding a solution through dialogue. “The government will choose the direction for future action through close deliberation with business operators about the issue of tourism to Mt. Kumgang under the principle that all inter-Korean issues should be resolved through dialogue and deliberations,” the Unification Ministry said.
A Unification Ministry official didn’t respond directly to a question about whether the government would repeat its proposal for intergovernmental talks or whether it would reach an agreement through correspondence as Pyongyang has suggested. “Correspondence-based deliberations are inherently limited to technical matters such as staff and schedule,” the official said, explaining that correspondence isn’t appropriate for dealing with a matter as complicated as Mt. Kumgang tourism.
“Since North Korea said in its response that it wants to engage in correspondence, we intend to consider our options from various angles through deliberation with business operators,” the official said, with the caveat that “the government holds to its stance that there needs to be a [face-to-face] meeting between inter-Korean officials.” In light of these remarks, Seoul will probably continue to push for an intergovernmental meeting, but through another method than the working-level talks between bureau director-generals that Pyongyang shot down.
Ultimate goal of arranging face-to-face talks
The South Korean government drew attention to the emphasis on an “agreement” in the messages sent by the Mt. Kumgang International Tourism Bureau on Oct. 25 and 29, an emphasis that is also found in Kim Jong-un’s instructions to tear down the facilities.
“The North Koreans have also said they intend to act according to an agreement. We’re planning to keep talking about taking action according to the principle of mutual agreement,” the Unification Ministry official said. Though it likely won’t be easy, Seoul means to use North Korea’s determination to reach an agreement about removing the buildings as leverage for ultimately arranging face-to-face talks.
During a visit to the Mt. Kumgang tourist resort, Kim Jong-un announced a plan for an all-inclusive international tourism and culture zone and ordered the removal of “all the unpleasant-looking facilities of the south side” and the construction of “new modern service facilities our own way,” according to a front-page story on the Oct. 23 edition of North Korea’s state-run Rodong Sinmun. These orders were the basis for the proposal made by North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang International Tourism Bureau on Oct. 25 for correspondence-based deliberations about arranging for South Korean workers to visit North Korea and tear down the facilities.
By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer, and Noh Ji-won, staff reporter