N.Korea Ramps Up Threats Over Mt. Kumgang Tours

      March 19, 2010 09:18

      North Korea on Thursday threatened to confiscate South Korean property in the Mt. Kumgang area in an increasingly frantic campaign to bully and cajole the South into resuming lucrative package tours to the resort.

      The North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, which deals with cross-border exchanges, made the threat in a message to the Unification Ministry and the tour operator Hyundai Asan. The committee warned it will "conduct a survey of South Korean property in the Mt. Kumgang area from March 25, and all assets of those who fail to cooperate with the measure will be confiscated and they will be unable to visit Mt. Kumgang again."

      The North threatened to work with a new operator to continue package tours to Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong unless South Korea resumes them by April.

      On March 4, the North already threatened to revoke all agreements and freeze South Korean property in the tourist areas if the South keeps blocking resumption of the tours. The latest threat is merely harsher in tone.

      The Unification Ministry called the threat "regrettable" as it violates agreements and also goes against international practice. "There is no change in the government's position that it will resume tours to Mt. Kumgang only when our people's safety is guaranteed," the ministry said.

      In the message, North Korea said, "From March 25, North Korean authorities and experts will conduct a survey of all South Korean assets in the presence of South Korean officials concerned," including Hyundai Asan staffers, who have assets in the area. "All South Koreans with real estate in the Mt. Kumgang area must report to the mountain by March 25," it added.

      According to the ministry, Hyundai Asan signed a lease with the North for a plot of land in Mt. Kumgang until 2052. South Korean firms have invested a total of W359.2 billion (US$1=W1,134), including W226.3 billion from Asan, in a hotel, a hot spring spa, a golf course, and a sushi restaurant there. The South Korean government owns a meeting hall for separated families opened in 2008 that cost more than W60 billion to build.

      Nonetheless the threat is likely to fall on deaf ears. A South Korean security official said, "The North apparently wants South Korean firms that are in danger of losing their assets in the North to put pressure on the government, but the government won't back down."

      A South Korean businessman operating in the Mt. Kumgang region said, "The North is threatening to seize our firms' real estate there while talking about attracting large amounts of foreign investment. What South Korean or foreign business will make new investments in the North under these circumstances?"

      The North is reeling from a botched currency reform and international sanctions over its nuclear program and is in desperate need of hard currency.

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