North Korea wants to talk about resuming tourism

SEOUL — Cash-strapped North Korea Thursday proposed talks with South Korea about resuming tourism projects which had earned it tens of millions of dollars a year until relations soured.

SEOUL — Cash-strapped North Korea Thursday proposed talks with South Korea about resuming tourism projects which had earned it tens of millions of dollars a year until relations soured.

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The North’s Asia Pacific Peace Committee, the state agency in charge of cross-border exchanges, suggested a meeting on January 26-27 in a message to South Korea’s unification ministry.

“It is very regretable that tours of Mount Kumgang and the area of Kaesong (in North Korea) have been suspended for one and a half years,” the communist state’s official news agency quoted the message as saying.

The unification ministry confirmed it had received the message.

“It’s a positive move, and we will consider it positively,” an unidentified Seoul official told Yonhap news agency.

In a further apparent sign that Pyongyang wants to improve relations, the two countries have also agreed to hold separate talks next week on ways to revitalise their jointly run industrial estate in the North.

South Korea suspended the tours after the North’s army shot dead a Seoul housewife at the scenic Mount Kumgang resort in July 2008. She had strayed into a poorly marked closed military zone while on a stroll.

Pyongyang began making peace overtures to Seoul last August, after months of bitter hostility which began when a conservative South Korean government came to power in February 2008 and linked major aid to progress in denuclearisation.

Some analysts believe the North’s recent overtures to both South Korea and the United States were prompted by tougher sanctions imposed following its nuclear and missile tests last year.

In November last year the North made a proposal through a visiting South Korean businesswoman to resume the tours. South Korea ignored the overture, saying it did not come through official channels.

It says the two governments should hold talks to work out firm agreements on the safety of South Korean visitors before the trips can resume.

The Mount Kumgang tours have earned some 487 million dollars in fees for the North since they began in 1998. Cross-border visitors could also previously take day trips to the historic city of Kaesong just across the frontier.

Kaesong is also the location of the joint industrial estate, where 40,000 North Koreans work in 110 South Korean factories.

All the cross-border projects are run by South Korea’s Hyundai Asan company, which has lost millions of dollars since the tours were suspended.

The unification ministry said the two sides would meet on Tuesday to discuss ways to develop the Kaesong estate, following up last month’s joint survey of overseas industrial parks.

A ministry spokesman said he hoped the meeting would develop into a regular forum on developing the project.

The Kaesong estate is the last joint reconciliation project still operating after the tours shut down. But fears grew early last year that the North may shut it down as political relations worsened.

The North last year ordered hundreds of South Koreans to leave the estate, intermittently restricted cross-border access to it and demanded a huge pay rise for its workers.

In September it dropped demands for the pay rise. Last month the two sides inspected industrial plants run by South Korean companies in China and Vietnam.

In 2008 the North received 26 million dollars in wage payments from the estate.