Leader Lee Hae-chan of the Democratic Party said in an extended internal executive meeting Wednesday that he “urged the Ministry of Unification to promote tourism to North Korea, such as Mount Kumgang, Pyongyang and Kaesong. “We hope that the government would permit, if not promote, tourism to North Korea,” Lee said in a Foreign Relations and Unification Committee meeting held at the National Assembly on the previous day, also asking if North Korean tourism was subject to sanctions. Minister Kim Yeon-chul of Unification replied, “Tourism itself is not subject to sanctions.”
Some say that that the dialogue between the leader of the ruling party and the minister is an orchestrated effort signaling the reopen of Mount Kumgang tourism. The issue is timely raised prior to U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to South Korea, whom President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly stressed he would consult with regarding Mount Kumgang tourism. President Moon is expecting to win positive feedback from the U.S. president, just as he did in his phone call regarding rice support to North Korea.
However, we should be aware that Mount Kumgang tourism is an entirely different issue from humanitarian aid to the North. Although the ruling party leader referred Mount Kumgang tourism as a means to appease tensions without violating North Korean sanctions, but Mt. Kumgang tourism projects would generate cash, which would violate sanctions. It would be difficult to evade criticism on whether the funds would be used for nuclear weapon development at a time when denuclearization efforts are getting nowhere. Tourism to Mount Kumgang was suspended in 2008, when a South Korean tourist was killed. There was no apology or guarantee on personal security afterwards from the North. Despite this situation, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said that he is willing to “reopen Mount Kumgang without any preconditions or return.” How would the South Korean people react to such brazen attitude?
The ruling party continue to assert that “we should concede first” in order to improve inter-Korean relations. “We need to take an approach where the South Korean president takes action first and ask for understanding from the United States,” said former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun. However, we should be mindful that nothing will be changed, even if we manage to curry favor with North Korea. Relations with the North would only worsen if we struggle internally amidst criticism on violating economic sanctions and deviating from international cooperation.