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Seoul pushes for NK tourism despite rift with Washington

South Korea is moving forward with its controversial plan to allow individual trips to North Korea by its own citizens, Seoul’s Unification Ministry confirmed Monday, reiterating that the US-led international sanctions in place against the communist state do not apply to tourism. 

Unification Ministry spokesperson Lee Sang-min (Yonhap)
Unification Ministry spokesperson Lee Sang-min (Yonhap)

“We are reviewing options on individual travel to North Korea, including how we will consult with Pyongyang over the issue,” a senior official at the ministry told reporters on customary condition of anonymity.

“Matters including security issues are to be discussed between the governments.”

The comments came after a rare public display of discord between South Korea and the United States on how to deal with the North, amid stalled denuclearization talks.

At a press conference on Jan. 14, President Moon Jae-in revealed his intentions of expanding inter-Korean exchanges, including the resumption of individual travel to North Korea.

Two days later, US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said Seoul should first discuss the plan with Washington in working-level meetings to avoid weakening the allies’ united front on North Korea.

Seoul officials and politicians immediately shot back at Harris, but the US State Department reaffirmed “full confidence” in Harris despite the row, according to Voice of America on Sunday.

On Monday, the Unification Ministry official stressed again that individual tours to the North violate neither UN sanctions nor the US “secondary boycott,” under which it unilaterally imposes sanctions on individuals and companies that do business with North Korea. The ministry added that the South Korean government would decide how to carry out the inter-Korean project.

On the question of whether a working-level discussion with the US is necessary, he said, “Whether the tours are part of the agenda the working group should discuss is hard to say.”

Given that tourists from China, Japan, Australia and Canada are already visiting North Korea, the ministry said, “We needn’t and shouldn’t draw out a stricter set of rules to govern our individual tours to Pyongyang.”

The ministry added that cash spent during the tours would not be classified as “bulk cash,” or lump sums of cash injected into a country that could contribute to prohibited activities.

The ministry explained that individual tourism is different from the well-known Kumgangsan tourism project in that the former would not be organized by South Korea or North Korea, but would be facilitated either by nonprofit organizations or private tourist agencies in a third country.

Tourists will have to gain the ministry’s approval before entering North Korea.

The ministry said the government would need to discuss with North Korea how to run the tours and guarantee the safety of individual tourists. 

By Choi Si-young (