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Seoul pushes for NK tourism despite rift with Washington

Unification Ministry spokesperson Lee Sang-min (Yonhap)
Unification Ministry spokesperson Lee Sang-min (Yonhap)
South Korea is pressing ahead 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 North do not apply to tourism.

“We are reviewing options on individual travel to North Korea,” a senior Unification Ministry official said. The ministry handles inter-Korean affairs. The officials said the two Koreas would discuss security arrangements for the tours to take place.

The comments came after a rare public display of discord between the South and the US on how to deal with the North, amid stalled denuclearization talks. A week ago, President Moon Jae-in revealed his intentions of resuming individual tours to the North as part of expanding inter-Korean exchanges.

US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said Seoul should first discuss the plan with Washington at working-level meetings to avoid weakening the allies’ efforts to keep up pressure on Pyongyang until it abandons its nuclear weapons. The US State Department said it has full confidence in Harris, according to Voice of America.

“Whether the tours are part of the agenda the working group should discuss is hard to say,” the Unification Ministry said, referring to the group the two allies established in 2018 to coordinate North Korea policy.

The ministry reiterated its position 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 doing business with Pyongyang. Seoul decides how to implement inter-Korean projects, the ministry added.

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

The ministry explained 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. Some have speculated resuming tours would help the cash-strapped North to bankroll its nuclear weapons program.

Individual tourism is also different from the well-known Kumgangsan tourism project in that the former would not be organized by either Seoul or Pyongyang. Nonprofit organizations or private tourist agencies in a third country would facilitate it, the ministry said.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)

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