North Korea yesterday gave South Koreans working at a jointly run tourism resort 72 hours to leave, saying time had run out to resolve a long-running dispute over what was once a symbol of cooperation between the two rivals.
The scenic Mount Kumgang resort has been closed since a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist there in 2008, drying up a lucrative source of hard currency for the North.
Pyongyang has suffered big losses due to the South’s “unilateral suspension” of operations at the resort, a spokesman for the North’s Guidance Bureau of Special Zone for International Tour of Mt Kumgang.
The North “has so far provided several opportunities for negotiations and made every sincere effort, advancing a variety of choices so that the properties may be dealt with according to the will of enterprises of the South side,” he said.
“This is not good,” said Moon Chung-in of Yonsei University in Seoul. “North Korea has been sending a very clear message, but our government has been delaying the decision. “I don’t know why they have handled this situation like this.”
The resort — comprising hotels, restaurants and a golf course — was opened in 1998 during a decade-long period of rapprochement between the two Koreas, known in the South as the “Sunshine policy” years.
Inter-Korean ties have declined sharply in the past three years, hitting a low last year when 50 South Koreans were killed in two attacks and the North unveiled a uranium enrichment facility. However, tensions have eased on the peninsula this year and a flurry of diplomacy has raised hopes for a resumption of regional talks on disabling the North’s nuclear program.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is currently visiting Russia’s Far East where he is scheduled to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev tomorrow. Analysts he is likely seeking economic aid and investment pledges from Moscow, mirroring similar requests made during a trip to China in May.
At its height, 300,000 South Koreans a year visited Mt Kumgang, generating tens of millions of US dollars for the North Korean government.
After months of threats and counter-threats from both sides, Pyongyang said it would now “legally dispose” of South Korean assets from Mt Kumgang after Seoul failed to meet Friday’s final deadline to agree on asset disposal.
South Korean assets at the resort are worth more than US$370 million, said South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees inter-Korean affairs.
North Korea said the South Koreans working there had 72 hours to leave. Fourteen of its nationals were stationed at the complex as yesterday.
“We cannot accept this ultimatum and hold North Korea responsible for all of the consequences that may follow,” ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung told reporters in Seoul.
The ministry would not say what its next move might be, but some media reports have said Seoul could take the issue to an international tribunal.
The resort was built by an affiliate of the South’s Hyundai Group at a cost of tens of millions of US dollars.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AFP