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N. Korea picks U.S. firm for Mount Kumgang tour business

North Korea has signed a deal with a New York-based company for tours to the Mount Kumgang resort, once jointly run with a South Korean conglomerate, a Korean-American businessman said Wednesday.

Park Il-woo, also known as Steve Park, who has long conducted business with the communist nation, said his firm recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the Mount Kumgang tourism business.

He is the president of Korea Pyongyang Trading U.S.A., which imports a North Korean liquor branded Pyongyang Soju.

The MOU stipulates that the company will be in charge of marketing, investor relations and tourist recruitment for what is said to be the most scenic mountain on the peninsula.

Under the agreement, the mountain area will be developed into a multi-purpose resort.

"(We) have long been pushing for the development of Mount Kumgang tourism. Last week, an official at the Pyongyang branch signed the MOU with the North Korean side at my instruction," Park said.

 He said he plans to visit North Korea this weekend or next week to discuss concrete business plans. He expressed confidence that he will be able to attract substantial U.S. investment for the business.

The North is also expected to select Japanese and Chinese business partners soon, he added.

For years, the North has unsuccessfully pressured the South to allow the resumption of tours to Mount Kumgang, along the peninsula's east coast.

South Koreans began trips to Mount Kumgang in 1998 under a joint project between the North and the South's Hyundai Asan, Hyundai Group's inter-Korean business arm, as a symbol of reconciliation.

The tour program served as a cash cow for the North. Hyundai has hotels, restaurants and other facilities there worth tens of millions of dollars.

The South suspended it, however, after a Seoul tourist was shot dead there by a North Korean soldier in 2008.

Seoul has been demanding Pyongyang's formal apology for the incident and security assurances for its tourists.

The North earlier announced that it would deprive Hyundai of its exclusive right to the mountain tour project and seize all of its assets in the region.

Park said he is not in a position to comment on the contract dispute between the two sides.

He was born and raised in South Korea before immigrating to the U.S. in the 1980s. (Yonhap News)

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