SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said South Korean facilities in the North’s Mt Kumgang tourist resort must be removed and rebuilt in a modern way, state media reported on Wednesday, underscoring the cooling of relations between the two countries.Mt Kumgang, along with the Kaesong industrial zone, has been one of two major inter-Korean economic projects and symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas during decades of hostilities following the Korean War.
But Kim, while inspecting the tourist spot on the east coast of North Korea, said it was a “mistaken idea” for Mt Kumgang to be viewed as a symbol of North-South relations.
The resort is North Korean soil, and tourism there must not be under the control of South Korea, Kim said.
“We will always welcome our compatriots from the south if they want to come to Mt Kumgang after it is wonderfully built as the world-level tourist destination,” Kim added.
North and South Korea had been exploring the prospect of re-starting joint economic projects before a recent cooling in relations. North Korea has criticized the South for adopting high-tech weapons and continuing joint military drills with the United States.
South Koreans were allowed to visit Mt Kumgang starting in 1998 by sea and from 2003 by land, with South Korean firms such as Hyundai Asan Corp and Ananti Inc investing in the tourist spot.
However, South Korea suspended tours to Mt Kumgang in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who had wandered unknowingly into a military area.
South Korea-funded facilities have remained there since then, but tours from the South have not resumed amid international sanctions trying to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programs.
Only infrequent inter-Korean events, such as reunions of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War, have been held there since.
Kim criticized the “mistaken policy of the predecessors” who were dependent on others to develop the tourist spot, and said Mt Kumgang must be taken care of as part of a larger tourist area that encompasses the mountain and the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area, KCNA said.
Tourism has increasingly became one of the focal industries not under international sanctions central to Kim’s policy of ‘self-reliant’ economic growth.
“The entire people should cherish the belief that self-reliance is the only way to live,” North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in a separate commentary on Wednesday. “There is nothing more foolish than to expect help from others today.”
Kim said North Korea should seek agreement with relevant South Korean authorities on the removal of the facilities, KCNA added.
The resumption of Mt Kumgang tours has been repeatedly mentioned as a possibility by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in recent years.
During a summit with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang in September 2018, Moon and Kim had agreed to normalize Mt Kumgang tours and the Kaesong industrial complex “as soon as the environment is created,” Moon announced at the time.In April, U.S. President Donald Trump was asked his stance on the possibility of restarting tours to Mt. Kumgang before a summit with Moon.
“This isn’t the right time, but at the right time I’d have great support,” Trump said, according to South Korean presidential office records.
“They have unbelievable location… surrounded by sea on two sides, the other side Russia, and China and over here SK,” Trump said, referring to North Korea. “You just can’t do better than that. And they have magnificent land. It has tremendous potential.”