Gov't Hell-Bent on Reviving Travel to N.Korea

Jay Yim, Jan. 21, 2020, 10:52 a.m.


The South Korean government remains hell-bent on stimulating individual tourism to North Korea despite U.S. warnings that this could violate sanctions and accusations of brazen electioneering.

A Unification Ministry official said Monday, "People from all over the world are going there. We don't have to apply particularly strict standards on trips by individual travelers."

The official made the comments in response to a reminder from reporters of the 2008 shooting death of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier at Mt. Kumgang resort, which put an end to package tours to the North and for which Pyongyang has never apologized.

The ministry scheduled a morning press conference to announce its plans to allow individual South Koreans to visit North Korea. President Moon Jae-in mentioned the plan in his New Year's address last Tuesday.

There are three possible routes. One is by land to Mt. Kumgang or Kaesong, another through a third country, most likely China, and the third through a foreign tour agency, the most prominent being Koryo Tours, also in China.

But none of the options provides personal security guarantees, and there is no indication that the government has even spoken to North Korea or sought approval from the U.S. and the international community.

A Unification Ministry official said, "Chinese travel agencies will prepare safety measures," but that would mean entrusting the lives of South Koreans to the hands of travel agents and North Korean authorities.

For the moment these trips are so unrealistic that the plan has led to head-scratching why it is even being mooted. Mt. Kumgang would seem to be off-limits since North Korea has demanded that South Korea pull down its aging chalet-type resort complex there by late February, with leader Kim Jong-un denouncing it as "unsightly."

There is also no sign that North Korea would grant visas to South Koreans even if they apply from somewhere overseas.

The government insisted that individual travel to North Korea would not violate international sanctions, and indeed substantial numbers of Chinese tourists visit the crackpot country. But the U.S. has repeatedly warned South Korea against weakening a united international front against North Korea and rushing to promote cross-border exchanges.

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