Seoul hints it could rely on international law to resolve issue
North Korea on Friday notified South Korea that it would begin taking “practical steps” to dispose of South Korean assets at its Mount Geumgang resort, a move that could further aggravate inter-Korean ties.
Friday was the deadline by which the North had demanded the South “dispose of its rights to the properties” at the scenic resort on the east coast.
Earlier in the day, Seoul sent a notification to Pyongyang, reiterating its call for inter-Korean working-level governmental talks over the disposal of its assets. The notification came days after Pyongyang virtually rejected an earlier request for them.
“We could not help but making this final decision as the South Korean authorities rejected our offer to hold working-level talks together with civilian businesspeople involved in the tour program,” the North said in its notification sent to Seoul’s Unification Ministry.
“As we have already stated, we will begin practical steps to dispose of South Korean assets at the resort.”
The North did not clarify what “practical steps” mean in the notification.
In a separate notification addressed to South Korean entrepreneurs, the North said that the “legal disposal period” is three weeks, and that South Korean business operators should come to the mountain separately to address the issue during that period.
“We think it is very regrettable. All responsibilities for the problems that could arise from its unilateral disposal of our properties will lie entirely on North Korea,” the Unification Ministry said in a press release.
“The government will draw up all possible diplomatic and legal measures to protect the property rights of our government and enterprises.”
One of the options the government is apparently considering is filing a complaint with the World Tourism Organization.
“As we watch how the North will handle this issue, we will consider all possible measures including turning to international law to resolve this issue,” vice ministry spokesperson Lee Jong-ju said in a press briefing
Seoul has said that Pyongyang should observe bilateral tourism agreements, stressing that it should not infringe on the property rights of South Korean companies involved in the tour program.
But the North maintains that it cannot recognize South Koreans’ exclusive rights over the tourism properties at the resort, threatening to unilaterally dispose of them after the deadline.
On Monday, Seoul requested that the two sides hold a working-level meeting over the issue, believing that the meeting should be government-level.
But the North said the following day that it would agree to the talks on the condition that South Korean businessmen related to the Geumgang tour program join them. This was regarded by Seoul as a virtual rejection of its request.
For both sides, this issue is a tough nut to crack. The cash-strapped North is desperately seeking to resume the Geumgang tours and attract South Korean tourists. The South is also circumspect over this issue as it seeks to enhance chilled inter-Korean ties.
The trips to the resort were a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation following an agreement in the first-ever Seoul-Pyongyang summit in 2000 and an important source of foreign currency for the North.
But they have been suspended since Seoul halted the tour program after a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier for allegedly trespassing into a restricted area in July 2008.
The North has repeatedly called for the resumption of the program, but the South has said that tours will not resume until the North provides a better explanation for the shooting and guarantees full-scale safety measures for tourists in the future.
Pyongyang reportedly raked in $1.5 million in 2006 and $2 million in 2007 through the tour program. Following the suspension of the tours to the mountain, tours to Gaeseong have been suspended.
Vice ministry spokesperson Lee Jong-ju said in a press briefing that unless the North offers any systematic measures to secure the safety of South Korean tourists, Seoul would not consider the resumption of the inter-Korean tour program.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)