SEOUL – North Korea agreed to restart family reunions and tourism by South Korean citizens at an enclave on the country’s east coast, state media said, in a move that could ease tensions with the South and revive what had been a steady income stream for the impoverished country.
Last week, the North released a South Korean worker that it had held for more than four months, and Pyongyang seems intent on engaging with the outside world after nearly a year of mounting tensions.
But prospects for rapid progress are unclear. Pyongyang said after its second nuclear test in May that it will not return to multination talks aimed at ending its atomic ambitions. The U.S. and others insist that those six-nation negotiations resume.
On Saturday, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak called for talks with North Korea on cutting the rival nations’ stockpiles of conventional weapons and shrinking their armed forces, to lessen the chance of conflict and unlock resources for economic development.
Mr. Lee, in a nationally televised speech marking the end of Japanese colonial rule over Korea in 1945, also reiterated a pledge to provide large-scale aid to the impoverished North if it abandons its atomic ambitions.
“How can we possibly talk about reconciliation and cooperation when we have millions of weapons aimed at each other?” asked Mr. Lee. He said scaling back arms spending would free “enormous resources” for “better economies on both sides.”
However, the president’s remarks gave no indication that he intends to soften his overall stance toward Pyongyang. Mr. Lee, a conservative who took office last year, ended a policy of basically unconditional assistance to the North, insisting instead that help from the South be linked to progress on dismantling nuclear-weapons programs.
That stance has angered the North, and relations between the two sides have soured. The North is still holding four crew members from a South Korean fishing boat seized after it strayed into the North’s waters in July.
There was no public response from North Korea to Mr. Lee’s overture. But over the weekend, the North lashed out at a military exercise set to start Monday involving the U.S. and South Korea, and the Korean Central News Agency said its army and people were on “special alert.” The North routinely says it is heightening its alert status when exercises are held in the South.
The tourism agreement followed a meeting between the North’s leader, Kim Jong Il, and the chairwoman of the Hyundai Group, the South Korean company that has managed the tours and played an important role in establishing commercial relations between the two Koreas.
South Koreans may not be keen to restart tours to the North, which were canceled last year after a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist at the Mount Kumgang resort area. The North refused to participate in a joint investigation of the incident.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted the agreement between the North and Hyundai as saying: “All necessary facilities and security for tourism will be reliably provided according to the special measures taken by Kim Jong Il.”
In recent months, Pyongyang also has been pressing for greater financial benefits from an industrial park in the North developed by Hyundai Asan, the same South Korean company that handles tourism to Mount Kumgang. South Korean companies with factories in the complex use low-cost North Korean labor. Even though the North suffers from severe shortages of food and energy, it has pursued for years what it calls a Military First policy, diverting national resources to its 1.2 million-strong armed forces and to efforts to develop missiles and atomic weapons.
Many outside observers say North Korea’s conventional military strength has eroded sharply as the Communist country’s economy has all but collapsed. They say this weakness may be an important factor driving the North’s pursuit of nuclear and ballistic-missile technology. South Korea’s forces are considered more capable and better equipped. It has more than 600,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines on active duty. There are also 28,500 U.S. military personnel in Korea, including Air Force units.
“Only when we reduce the number of weapons and troops and redeploy them rearward, will we be able to take a step forward to genuine peace,” Mr. Lee said. “Now is the time to come to the table and talk about those issues.”