|Foreigners tour Pyongyang in this photo released, Jan. 17. / Yonhap|
By Kang Seung-woo
South Korea is moving forward with its plan to allow individual tours to North Korea, coming up with a draft that it believes would not violate international sanctions.
After President Moon Jae-in floated the idea in his New Year Press conference, Jan. 14, the unification ministry presented the measures, Monday, to move forward with the contentious plan, over which Seoul is at odds with Washington
Moon proposed the individual tours to the North as part of efforts to expand cross-border exchanges.
Concept of individual tours
The ministry unveiled three options regarding tours to the country and the most probable one is South Koreans purchasing tour programs run by a travel agency in a third country.
In this case, after gathering tourists from the South, the travel agency will send the list to the South Korean government that will review whether to approve their visit to Pyongyang and other North Korean tourist spots such as Wonsan, Galma and Samjiyon.
The government also proposed trips for families separated by the Korean War, to Mount Geumgang and Gaeseong through the truce village of Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); and cross-border tour programs by travel agencies based in third countries for foreigners visiting the two Koreas.
Violation of UN sanctions
Since the issue surfaced last week, it has sparked a heated debate, highlighted by U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris' apparent objection to the plan. He reportedly urged Seoul to hold prior consultations with Washington in its pursuit of allowing South Korean nationals to make individual tours to the North.
However, the unification ministry believes the tours are not subject to the international sanctions on Pyongyang.
"The cash spent on the individual tours would not be classified as bulk cash that can be used for activities related to nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction," a ministry official said.
"Tourists from other countries currently visit North Korea and spend cash there, but they are not subject to the sanctions."
The ministry made it clear that individual tourism is different from the previous group tours to Mount Geumgang that have been suspended since 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot dead, given that the private cross-border tour would be facilitated by nonprofit organizations or private travel agencies in third countries.
Currently South Koreans visiting North Korea are required to obtain a legitimate invitation from the North, which is reviewed by the unification ministry. Such a process will be required for individual travel to the North, but the ministry is flexible about approving their visits.
"Documents that confirm an invitation from the North can be in various forms," the ministry official said.
If South Korean tourists receive visas from the North in a third country, the ministry said the visa could replace the invitation and they would be able to travel there after the South Korean government reaches an agreement with the North that guarantees the safety of the individual tourists.
However, it remains to be seen whether any of this will become a reality in the near future because the Kim Jong-un regime has yet to respond to any of President Moon's requests.