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‘NK leveraging inter-Korean resort to pull concession’

Inter-Korean resort town near Kumgangsan in North Korea. (KCNA-Yonhap)
Inter-Korean resort town near Kumgangsan in North Korea. (KCNA-Yonhap)
North Korea is exploiting the inter-Korean resort town on the east coast near Kumgangsan to pull more concessions from South Korea, and will step up pressure to gain more compromises in the weeks to come, experts told The Korea Herald.

The North said Sunday it will expand the South Korean-built tourism facilities in its own way. A year ago in December, Pyongyang insisted Seoul tear down the resort, only to suspend the decision in January over coronavirus concerns.

The tourism zone, which attracted visitors from 1998 to 2008, is the culmination of Seoul’s pro-engagement policies with Pyongyang. The South has repeatedly tried dialogue to keep the key inter-Korean project in place, but could not engage the North recently.

“Perhaps the regime believes it can use new threats of exploiting Kumgangsan to extort more concessions from the Moon administration,” said David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

President Moon Jae-in and his ruling Democratic Party of Korea have been accused of conceding too much to Pyongyang, especially in a recent bill approved a week ago that criminalizes sending propaganda leaflets, along with food and medicine, into the North across the inter-Korean border.

Pyongyang, which had complained about the leaflets and an absence of follow-up measures from Seoul, raised tensions in June when it destroyed the inter-Korean liaison office.

Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at Rand Corp., said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stands to gain something from a hike in tensions.

“That overall North Korean strategy is a form of ‘escalate to deescalate’ … I suspect Kim is doing the same kind of thing now,” he said, adding that Kim pressed ahead with weapons tests in 2017, but in 2018 offered to participate in the Winter Olympics that South Korea hosted.

Kim is starting to step up tensions this time, only to ease them later in exchange for concessions from President Moon, Bennett said.

“This is the beginning of some sort of slow and steady tough talk that will grow louder in the weeks to come, especially as we get closer to the days when US President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office,” said Harry J. Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Washington-based Center for the National Interest.

North Korea knows well that President Moon, who is pro-engagement and eyeing to break the deadlock over inter-Korean exchanges, would pay attention to any change involving the inter-Korean resort town, Kazianis said.

Some experts said Pyongyang’s latest move to hold the tourism zone hostage is a sign.

“This pressuring of Seoul to convince Washington to loosen sanctions may be indicative of the strategy Pyongyang will pursue after the 8th Party Congress,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said the North, set to unveil a major economic initiative in the January party congress, is trying to rally its people behind leader Kim.

“Resuming the routine pressure campaign against Seoul is one thing; Pyongyang is also looking to solidify commitment to its ‘self-help’ initiative ahead of the congress.”

The isolated regime has from time to time described “self-help” as the way for its people to power through obstacles ahead, like economic difficulties and COVID-19, and encouraged them to follow through on the state-driven campaign.

Experts, however, said Pyongyang lacked resources to expand the tourism zone on its own, at least for the time being.

Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said, “Right at the moment, I don’t see Pyongyang ready to put together a master plan and to implement the expansion. They could pull that off in the long-term, but not now.”

“I doubt that the North is prepared to spend much on developing the Kumgangsan resort right now -- it has too many other projects it is trying to finish,” Bennett said.

By Choi Si-young (