South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul met with Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun on Thursday to discuss the controversy surrounding the plans to dismantle its facilities at the Kumgangsan tourist resort in North Korea.
The ministry has held a series of talks with Hyundai Asan -- the inter-Korean business unit of Hyundai Group, which holds a 50-year license to operate a tour program to the scenic Kumgangsan -- since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last month ordered the removal of South Korea-funded buildings at the resort complex at the foot of the mountain north of the inter-Korean border.
Pyongyang has been insisting that Seoul set up a schedule and map out plans for the demolition of the facilities while Seoul has been seeking to resolve the issue through dialogue.
The minister said while the gap between the position of both countries’ respective position on the matter remains unchanged, the government will continue to search for a solution by cooperating with Hyundai Group.
“The government has been making efforts to find creative solutions that are based on agreements (between the two Koreas and the companies) while prioritizing the protection of property rights of the companies. In this process, I think that Hyundai and the government should cooperate closely to find a solution,” Kim said ahead of the closed-door meeting with Kim.
The Hyundai Group chairwoman also vowed close cooperation with the government. “We’ll work with the government to deal with the issue wisely. I hope we find a good resolution and have a good relationship with the North,” she said.
Hyundai founder Chung Ju-yung, Hyun’s late father-in-law, started the tourism program in 1998. In November last year, Hyun traveled to Pyongyang to attend a ceremony commemorating the 20th anniversary of the now-stalled joint Kumgangsan tourism project co-hosted by the two Koreas.
Hyun’s wish to resume the inter-Korean project has been dissipated as Pyongyang began giving Seoul the cold shoulder following its failed summit with the US in Vietnam in February.
The South Korean government seeks to bring about a thaw in strained relations with the North. Therefore, removing the South’s assets from the long-suspended Kumgangsan tourism project, a symbol of reconciliation between the two Koreas, will be a huge setback.
“In inter-Korean relations, there are times when we make progress but there can also be a lull. How to manage the situation and seize opportunities for progress seems very important,” Unification Minister Kim told reporters Wednesday.
As the Kumgangsan tours involve not only the government but also companies that invested millions of dollars, the Unification Ministry has stressed the need for consultations with the enterprises that own or operated hotels, restaurants, a spa and a golf course there.
“The government has no choice but to consider the interests of the (tourism) operators first, so we continue to exchange information and discuss measures with them,” a high-ranking official at the ministry said.
On Nov. 6, the Unification Ministry sent a letter to notify North Korea of its plan to send a delegation of government and business officials for inspection of the facilities and possible discussions on relevant issues. The official said a discussion is ongoing between the Koreas, but Pyongyang has been remaining its position for the demolition. The ministry’s earlier proposal to hold a working-level talks was refused by the North.
Thursday’s meeting came as the minister is due to visit the US from Nov. 17-23. Kim plans to meet with key figures from the US government and Congress to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and major issues related to inter-Korean relations. He is likely to underscore the importance of inter-Korean economic cooperation in denuclearization talks.
By Park Han-na (email@example.com