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S. Korea Firms Seek to Restart Tours in North

FILE – A North Korean man records video while climbing his country’s Mount Kumgang in 2012. Some South Korean firms hope to resume a project involving tours to that area.

A group of South Korean firms has called for resuming an inter-Korean tour program that has been suspended for seven years.

The Mount Kumgang tour program, a symbol of reconciliation and economic cooperation between the two Koreas, allowed tourists from the South to visit the North's famous resort. Seoul suspended the project in July 2008, after a South Korean tourist was shot to death by a North Korean guard.

Pyongyang has long demanded that Seoul resume the project, but the South has insisted the North take measures to guarantee the safety of South Koreans first. Hyundai Asan, an arm of the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Group and the operator of the project, has made multiple attempts to revive the venture.

On Tuesday, representatives of 49 companies that invested in the project held a news conference in Seoul to call on both governments to resolve the standoff.

"North and South Korea should resolve political differences that benefit neither and engage in a dialogue quickly with genuine interest," said Lee Jong-heung, head of an association of the companies. "Allow us to work by promptly resuming the Mount Kumgang tour project and lifting sanctions against the North."

He was referring to the so-called May 24 measure, a retaliatory action taken by Seoul after the fatal sinking of a South Korean navy ship in 2010 that claimed the lives of 46 sailors.

Lee said the South Korean companies suffered more than $700 million in lost revenue when the tour project was halted.

He also called for the South to create a law that allows financial assistance for the companies.

"We earnestly appeal to the government for its assistance in enacting a law to help those who contributed to easing tension on the peninsula and building a path toward unification despite many challenges," Lee said.

The Mount Kumgang tourism project, launched in November 1998, was a product of the South’s "Sunshine Policy" under the Kim Dae-jung government. The Kim government pursued reconciliation with the North by promoting economic engagement and people-to-people exchanges.

Jee Abbey Lee contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the VOA Korean service.