Seoul on Tuesday responded to a call from North Korea for negotiations this week about resuming package tours to Mt. Kumgang by suggesting Sept. 25 instead.
"A more prudent approach will allow us to reach constructive solutions to the Mt. Kumgang tour project. It is not a matter to be dealt with hastily because the package tours have already been suspended for five years," South Korea told the North via a liaison channel.
North Korea was keen to hold talks about fresh cross-border family reunions and negotiations about the package tours on consecutive days this week, in an apparent attempt to use one as leverage for the other. But Seoul said the reunions of families separated by the Korean War are a purely humanitarian issue and quite separate from the business project.
For the same reason, Seoul wants to change the venue for Friday's reunion talks from Mt. Kumgang to the border truce village of Panmunjom.
Earlier on Tuesday, Pyongyang again demanded talks about the Mt. Kumgang tour project this Thursday. "Family reunions and Mt. Kumgang tours are linked to each other. It is not a good idea to consider them separately," it said.
The North first made the demand on Aug. 18.
It hopes for both projects to resume around Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving, which falls on Sept. 19 this year.
The package tours to the scenic resort were stopped in July 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who had strayed off-limits.
Meanwhile, North Korea ratcheted up anti-South Korean rhetoric the same day, for the first time since both sides agreed to reopen the joint-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex last Wednesday. Referring to President Park Geun-hye as the "South Korean person in authority," the North's Committee for the Peaceful Unification of the Fatherland slammed a Cheong Wa Dae National Security Council meeting that was part of annual joint exercises with the U.S.
The statement called the meeting an "act that pours cold water on the hard-won atmosphere for inter-Korean dialogue and runs counter to the current of the times aspiring to peace."
Prof. Yoo Ho-yeol of Korea University said the North was clearly miffed that Seoul wants to keep the family reunions separate from the tourism project and had to find some kind of outlet for its anger.
But Prof. Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University said the reaction was unusually restrained and suggests the North still wants to make progress.
Some conservatives here have warned that resuming the package tours violate UN Security Council Resolution 2087 issued early this year, which bans the remittance of "bulk cash" to the renegade country. They warn that the package tours would net the North some US$20 million per year in various charges and fees that could be used to develop weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons.
Government officials here stressed the need to reconsider the manner of payment if the tour project should resume. One official pledged to check if the payment method conflicts with the UNSC resolution when negotiations get underway.