Payment for N.Korea Tours Proves Headache for Gov't

      November 27, 2009 12:59

      There are differences in opinion in the government over whether package tours to the Mt. Kumgang resort in North Korea, a cash cow Pyongyang wants to revive, fall under UN sanctions. Asked about these concerns on Thursday, one ranking official said, "The matter is relevant to UN Security Council resolution 1874." The resolution, adopted after North Korea's nuclear and missile tests this spring, aims at preventing Pyongyang from obtaining cash for developing weapons of mass destruction.

      Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung said payment in kind rather than cash "can be studied when the two Koreas discuss resuming the tour program." But Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young told a regular briefing session, "It's the government's judgment that the tour programs to Mt. Kumgang are not subject to sanctions under Security Council Resolution 1874."

      North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visits the Sinuiju Footwear Factory in Sinuiju, northwest of Pyongyang in this undated picture released by the official [North] Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday. /North Korean Central News Agency

      But a Cheong Wa Dae official denied there were differences of opinion. "There is consensus not only between the unification and foreign ministries but also between Seoul and Washington that the Mt. Kumgang tours themselves do not violate the UN Security Council resolution." He would not be drawn, however, on the cash payments the North has so far extracted per tourist. "It's necessary for the Unification Ministry, which has to negotiate with the North, to raise the matter." North Korea had earned over US$500 million in cash from the tour program over 10 years until it was suspended after the shooting death of a South Korean tourist there in July last year.

      The ranking official said the government is willing to accept a formal North Korean proposal if it makes it. A security official said, "No change in payment for the tour program has been raised as a new condition for resuming the program, but there is a need for transparency in light of the Security Council resolution."

      Hyundai Asan, the North Korea tourism arm of the Hyundai Group, has made monthly payments to an overseas account designated by the North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, which charges $50-$80 per tourist. The government is reportedly reviewing ways of preventing the money from going into North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's private pockets or being used for military purposes. One option would be making the payments into an account that can only be used to import food, while another would be payment in goods.

      But the chances that the North would accept those options are slim. In a statement Wednesday, the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee called non-cash payments "ludicrous," adding, " Nowhere in the world do tourists pay for their tours with goods." Nor would it make much sense for the government to interfere in what is essentially a private contract between Hyundai Asan and the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, while settlements in goods would be difficult because market prices of commodities like rice and petroleum fluctuate daily, a government source said. "I don't think North Korea is going to accept a change in method of payment," he said.

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