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Seoul pushes for reviving inter-Korean tour programs

Unification Minister Lee In-young, right, bumps fists with Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun during their meeting at the ministry in Seoul, June 1. Yonhap
Unification Minister Lee In-young, right, bumps fists with Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun during their meeting at the ministry in Seoul, June 1. Yonhap

Experts pessimistic over unification ministry's drive

By Kang Seung-woo

The government is re-igniting its drive for inter-Korean tourism projects as part of efforts to improve ties with North Korea, but is not expected to achieve its desired result, according to Pyongyang watchers, Monday.

Unification Minister Lee In-young met with Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun, June 1, and reiterated his commitment to resuming a long-suspended tourism project at North Korea's Mount Geumgang. Hyundai began the tour program to the scenic mountain in 1998, but it was halted in 2008 when a South Korean tourist was killed by a North Korean border guard.

In addition, the minister also held a meeting, Friday, with Lee Joong-myung, chairman of Ananti, which used to run a golf course at the mountain resort, and discussed the two Koreas co-hosting a world golf championship in the North in 2025.

The minister is scheduled to meet with Ahn Young-bae, the president of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), Wednesday, to discuss resuming inter-Korean cooperation in tourism, according to the unification ministry. The KTO was one of the organizations that oversaw tourism projects to North Korea, as well as running a duty free store there.

The unification ministry's push comes following the May summit between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Joe Biden, during which the latter expressed his support for inter-Korean dialogue, engagement and cooperation, which the ministry believes created conditions favorable to inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation.

However, experts do not buy into the ministry's optimistic view, citing existing international sanctions on the totalitarian state. Currently, even sending items to the North for a golf tournament, including a set of high-end golf clubs, could be in violation of the sanctions.

"Tourism is the only sector that has the highest possibility for inter-Korean cooperation, given that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is highly interested in tourism," said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.

"However, it will not be easy to make it happen due to the heavily intertwined sanctions."

Park added that the U.S. government is not considering easing or lifting sanctions at all before North Korea takes measures to denuclearize, as evidenced by U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, who recently made it clear that sanctions will not be lifted soon.

Unification Minister Lee In-young, right, poses with Lee Joong-myung, chairman of Ananti, during their meeting at the ministry in Seoul, Friday. Yonhap
Unification Minister Lee In-young, right, poses with Lee Joong-myung, chairman of Ananti, during their meeting at the ministry in Seoul, Friday. Yonhap

Also, it remains to be seen if the North Korean regime will respond to South Korea's overtures.

"This series of moves by the unification ministry sort of represents the Moon administration's determination to normalize stalled inter-Korean ties, and North Korea is unlikely to immediately accept them," said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.

"Should North Korea and the United States hold talks, and their negotiations make progress, Pyongyang may think about improving its relations with South Korea. Otherwise, it is unlikely."

Park also said that, should South and North Korea be on good terms and the North show its sincerity toward nuclear talks, the U.S. may consider sanctions relief.

"However, current inter-Korean ties are not enough to persuade the U.S. to offer sanctions relief," he said.

The North is also expected to consider the Moon administration's remaining term in office before restoring inter-Korean relations. President Moon is scheduled to leave office in May next year.

"If South Korea sees a transfer of power next year, North Korea may take more cautious steps toward inter-Korean cooperation," Hong said.


Kang Seung-woo ksw@koreatimes.co.kr


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