North Korea's decision to restart tours run jointly with South Korea and allow reunions of families separated for decades by the peninsula's war is aimed at obtaining much-needed foreign currency and leverage in negotiations with Washington and Seoul, experts said.
Tours to the scenic Diamond Mountain resort located just north of the world's most heavily fortified border, has been a key symbol of reconciliation between the divided Koreas. But when a South Korean was shot near the mountain in July last year_ with tensions already high following the inauguration of conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak — South Korea pulled the plug.
|South Korean protesters wearing masks of U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak perform during a rally denouncing Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a joint military exercise between South Korea and the U.S.|
North Koreaended another tour program to historic sites in the North Korean border city of Kaesong late last year.
Dates for resumed tours are to be worked out later in government-to-government talks, South Korean officials said. But North Korea's announcement Monday of their resumption was its latest in a series of goodwill gestures to Seoul and Washington after months of provocations, including pulling out of nuclear talks, test-firing a barrage of missiles and conducting an atomic test.
Earlier this month, the North released two jailed American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, to former President Bill Clinton. On Thursday, a South Korean worker at a joint industrial complex in the North — who had been detained since March — was freed.
The announcement followed a rare meeting Sunday between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Hyun Jung-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Group, the South Korean operator of the two tour programs. Hyun, upon arrival in South Korea on Monday, said she told Kim of the conglomerate's difficulties in its North Korean business and "he resolved them all."
Hyun also told reporters that Kim himself told her that such an incident like the shooting "will never happen again."
Hyundai has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the projects aimed at promoting ties with the North and their suspension caused serious losses. The conglomerate's North Korea business arm, Hyundai Asan, said losses amounted to more than $130 million.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Pyongyang appeared to want to "ease its economic difficulties at a time of full-fledged sanctions" by resuming the tour programs — which were an important source of hard currency for the isolated regime.
North Korea's centrally controlled economy has been in shambles over the past two decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s deprived the country of a key source of trade and aid. Subsequent mismanagement and natural disasters have also hurt the economy. An estimated 2 million people in the North died of hunger in the mid-1990s.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University, said the ailing Kim needs to solve the North's deep economic malaise before handing power to one of his sons. "The issue of feeding people should first be resolved to stabilize the succession." Kim, 67, who has reportedly suffered a stroke, recently indicated his youngest son would succeed him.
Yoo also said Pyongyang wants to promote ties with Washington and Seoul and soften the ground for eventual talks.
"The North knows that a condition for dialogue (with the U.S.) is the dismantling of its nuclear program," Yoo said. "So the North is taking a conciliatory gesture to soften sanctions imposed on it and establish a favorable position in negotiations while maintaining its nuclear weapons program."
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday the North's announcement is "a welcome step" but urged the regime to abide by a pledge to dismantle its nuclear weapons program under an international disarmament-for-aid deal.
"We want to see them take definitive steps, irreversible steps toward denuclearization," he said.
It was unclear if South Korean President Lee, who angered Pyongyang by taking a tougher line than his liberal predecessors on keeping North Korea accountable to its commitments on nuclear disarmament, would take the bait.
He told a Cabinet meeting Monday that an "unshakable policy" on North Korea will eventually change the regime and draw international support. It was not clear whether he was referring directly to the North's announcement.
Some analysts said the South's rejection of the accords would invite criticism at home for failing to resolve frayed ties with the North and ease tensions on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea's aim is to "put pressure on the South Korean government," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies. "The North has put the ball in South Korea's court."
The North also agreed to resume reunions of families separated since the Korean War ended with a fragile armistice in 1953. They offered to host a meeting at the Diamond Mountain resort on this year's annual "Chuseok" autumn harvest holiday that falls on Oct. 3 and is celebrated in both Koreas.
Family reunions first took place in August 2000 and have reunited about 20,000 separated Koreans. They were last held in October 2007.