from Asia Unbound

The Real Obstacles to the Return of Tourists to North Korea’s Mount Kumgang

An employee enters a room at a hotel in Mount Kumgang resort in Kumgang, North Korea, on September 1, 2011.
An employee enters a room at a hotel in Mount Kumgang resort in Kumgang, North Korea, on September 1, 2011. Carlos Barria via REUTERS

Has the time come for South Korean tourists to return to Mount Kumgang?

February 28, 2020

An employee enters a room at a hotel in Mount Kumgang resort in Kumgang, North Korea, on September 1, 2011.
An employee enters a room at a hotel in Mount Kumgang resort in Kumgang, North Korea, on September 1, 2011. Carlos Barria via REUTERS
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Has the time come for South Korean tourists to return to Mount Kumgang? Will the United States use UN Security Council resolutions to block South Korea from resuming Mount Kumgang tourism? South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s reference to the resumption of Mount Kumgang and the Kaeseong Industrial Complex in his 2020 New Year’s address last month raised many such questions, few of which have easy answers. 

South Koreans have tended to interpret Moon’s comments as an expression of impatience toward the United States, and South Korean media has closely watched the official U.S. response to Moon’s Mount Kumgang tourism trial balloon. This is in part because Moon himself has in the past suggested that progress in inter-Korean relations might have a positive catalytic effect on stalemated U.S.-North Korea dialogue. 

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This perception has been magnified by Korean media treatment of rather unremarkable public remarks made by U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris—that the resumption of Kumgang tourism would be a good topic for the U.S.-South Korea working group. Ambassador Harris’ remarks have been blown out of proportion within the South Korean media in an effort to mobilize concern that the United States might stand in the way of progress in inter-Korean relations. But as long as North Korea itself stands in the way of inter-Korean relations, including the resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism, the U.S. position on inter-Korean cooperation is a secondary concern at best.

My reading of Moon’s remarks on North Korea is that they are not so much a trial balloon aimed at the United States but instead a public plea for North Korea to return to inter-Korean dialogue. Moon’s New Year’s speech is filled with potential sweeteners: the proposal for joint hosting of the 2032 Summer Olympics, continuation of sports exchanges, reconnection of inter-Korean railroads and roads, and the transformation of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) dividing the two countries into an international peace zone. These proposals are all central to Moon’s policy platform for North Korea, but cannot be achieved without inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation. Moon’s willingness to offer sweeteners is correlated with the political risks he has taken in the pursuit of a path that depends on Kim Jong-un’s good will for success.

However, Moon was reduced to sending trial balloons publicly in the form of a New Year’s speech, rather than through quiet inter-Korean negotiations through the liaison office at Kaeseong or another such channel. Moon’s hopes of institutionalizing inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation prior to the Panmunjom meeting have failed. North Korea even brushed off South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-young’s efforts earlier this month to take credit for transmitting U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s birthday wishes to Kim Jong-un by claiming that the United States and North Korea have no need for South Korean interference and independently utilize their own direct communication channels.

If this is the state of affairs in inter-Korean relations, the resumption of South Korean tourism to Mount Kumgang or any other North Korean tourist spot is truly far away—not because of Washington and surely not because of insufficient effort or desire on the part of the Moon administration, but because of Pyongyang. First, Kim Jong-un himself has ordered the expropriation and demolition of South Korean tourist infrastructure at Mount Kumgang, claiming that it is an eyesore. But this decision calls into question North Korea’s ability to honor its contract with Hyundai Asan and thus its ability to work with any South Korean private sector partner in support of inter-Korean cooperative efforts. Even if Kim somehow circumvents international calls for denuclearization and wins sanctions relief, the threat of expropriation of foreign assets would freeze prospects for international investment in North Korea.

Second, North Korea has not responded adequately to the shooting of South Korean housewife Park Wang-ja and resulting closure of Mount Kumgang in 2008. The inability of North Korean authorities to come clean, apologize, and guarantee the safety of South Korean tourists will remain a fundamental obstacle to the resumption of inter-Korean tourism. Until North Korea can guarantee the safety of South Korean tourists on visits North of the DMZ, the South Korean government cannot responsibly fulfill its duty to protect its citizens by promoting visits to the North. 

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Of course, South Korea can read between the lines to determine the U.S. government’s views on tourism to North Korea. Following the detention and death of Otto Warmbier at the hands of North Korean authorities, the U.S. government has taken the extraordinary step of restricting tourism to North Korea by requiring U.S. citizens to apply for special validation passports restricted to professional journalists, Red Cross representatives, humanitarian aid workers, and those who can justify a visit to North Korea based on U.S. national interests.

The Warmbier event, and North Korea’s failure to manage it in a humane way, may loom as one of the deepest and most irreparable sources of so-called U.S. “hostility” toward North Korea. And just like the impact of the Park Wang-ja killing on inter-Korean relations, it is a source of mutual mistrust that North Korea must address before either country can wholeheartedly embark on the path toward reconciliation.

This article was originally published here.

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