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October 23, 2013

S. Korea Assures Companies About Tourism to North

by Daniel Schearf

South Korea's Unification Minister met with local investors in the tourism industry Wednesday to discuss compensation for years of suspended travel to North Korea's Mount Kumgang. Cash-strapped Pyongyang pushed for reopening the tours but Seoul says it first wants safety guarantees. 

​​​Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae met Wednesday with some of the 40 South Korean companies invested in North Korea's Mount Kumgang tourist region.

In 2008, tours to the area were suspended after a middle-aged South Korean woman wandered into a military controlled beach area and was shot dead. Pyongyang claims the tourist ignored instructions from soldiers and ran. It refused to allow a South Korean investigation.

South Korea's Association of Kumgang Tour Investors said the shutdown has cost companies an estimated $750 million in lost sales.

According to Chung Kwan-soo, the president of Noblesse Tour company, the ban forced the company to lay off workers.

​He said it is not just their company but about 120 tourism and bus companies that closed down and reduced their labor force.  In South Korea, he says, at least 30,000 people including employees and their families maintained a living from Mount Kumgang tourism.  He says they are having a difficult time since they lost their jobs.

Unification Minister Ryoo would not say what the government is prepared to offer the investors.  But, speaking Tuesday at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, he expressed his sympathy and support and said North Korea is to blame for the loss of tourism.

He said tourism has stopped for five years and there is a cause of the stoppage and North Korea has the responsibility to take.  He said the project can be resumed when the cause and responsibility of North Korea is clearly found and when a measure is provided for taking responsibility.

The mountain resort area is a special administrative region opened in 1998 with support by South Korea's Hyundai Asan corporation. The company invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing the region, and says the closure has cost it more than $600 million. For now it is not seeking any compensation from the government.

Mount Kumgang's natural beauty made it a popular destination for South Koreans. Some two million tourists visited while it was open.

Pyongyang has been urging a speedy resumption of the tours, a source of much needed foreign currency. But South Korea wants a safety guarantee for visitors. North Korea also took over hundreds of millions of dollars worth of South Korean assets in the resort area that Seoul wants returned.

Tourism company president Chung said both sides are to blame.

He said the calculation of each side is different so it perpetuates the situation of slow progress. He said the problem occurs as neither side concedes and says there is no end in sight when both sides quibble over the problems of the past.

In an effort to address the stalemate, South Korea agreed in February to allow new investment in Mount Kumgang.

The two Koreas were also to hold talks on resuming tourism in early October.

The progress came after an agreement to reopen their joint factory zone in Kaesong and resume reunions of families separated since the 1950s Korean War.

But while the Kaesong Industrial Zone has slowly restarted operations, North Korea abruptly postponed the family reunions and Mount Kumgang talks.

Pyongyang claimed Seoul was being hostile and taking all the credit for improved relations.

VOA Seoul Bureau producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.