SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered the removal of South Korean-built facilities at the Mt. Kumgang resort — a rare example of inter-Korean cooperation — calling the buildings “shabby,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s official news source, said on Wednesday.
Kim’s remarks will likely further test the strained relations between North and South Korea, in tandem with the stalemate over denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
“The mountain was left uncared for more than 10 years to leave a flaw, and the land is worthy of better,” Kim said. He made the comments during his inspection of the tourist spot on the east coast of North Korea.
The young dictator has ordered modern service facilities to be built in place of the “unpleasant-looking” ones constructed by the South, the agency said.
Kim even criticized his late father’s policy of depending on the South for the mountain resort, calling it a “mistaken idea.”
“Mt. Kumgang is our land won at the cost of blood and even a cliff and a tree on it are associated with our sovereignty and dignity,” he said.
He also ordered plans to be drawn up for the development of surrounding regions as part of a master development plan for the scenic tourism resort.
He left the door open to South Koreans’ visit to the site, but stressed the North should take the lead on any tour program.
Mt. Kumgang resort opened in 1998 and was a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation following the first cross-border summit in Pyongyang between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il. The two leaders agreed to operate a joint economic zone in Kaeseong, just north of the demilitarized zone.
The inter-Korean projects saw millions of dollars channeled every year to the North Korean regime, which was desperate for cash in order to develop a nuclear arsenal.
However, the tourist resort has been closed since 2008, when a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.
A series of North Korean provocations, including a 2010 attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and the regime’s nuclear tests, have hampered the resumption of the cross-border projects.
Since Moon Jae-in became president of South Korea in 2017, his administration have placed a high priority on relations with the North. At a summit in September 2018, Moon and Kim pledged that inter-Korean business projects would restart.
The Seoul government asked the US to lift sanctions partially so that such projects — including the Mt. Kumgang resort — could be resumed, but Washington opposed the move, worrying that it would undermine the US-led international economic sanctions focused on tightening the North’s purse strings.
“This isn’t the right time, but at the right time I’d have great support,” US President Donald Trump said in April when asked about restarting tours to Mt. Kumgamg.
Observers believe Kim’s order to raze the South Korean facilities at the resort is a warning to the US that it should relax sanctions against his regime.
“This is a strong message to the US that the tourism project should be excluded from sanctions,” veteran lawmaker Rep. Park Jie-won, a four-term lawmaker who had served as chief secretary to late President Kim Dae-jung, said in a radio interview.
Park said Kim’s remarks could be related to some under-the-table trade deals with the US, citing President Trump’s recent comments on North Korea.
On Monday, Trump mentioned some potential trade deals with North Korea.
“Whether it’s North Korea, South Korea… probably, something is going to be happening with North Korea too,” he said. “There’s some very interesting information on North Korea. A lot of things are going on. And that’s going to be a major rebuild at a certain point.”
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, in charge of the South’s relationship with the North, responded cautiously to the North Korean leader’s remarks.
“We’re examining the intentions and authenticity of the remarks,” ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told reporters. “If there’s any request from the North, we’re always willing to discuss the matter based on our citizens’ property rights, the spirit of inter-Korean agreements, and efforts to facilitate the resumption of the Mt. Kumgang tourism.”
Hyundai Asan, the main operator of the Mt. Kumgang tourist site, was baffled by the North’s intention to remove its facilities, in which hundreds of millions of dollars were invested, and which include hotels, a culture center, a family reunion hall, a golf resort and more.
“We will calmly address the latest issue and seek contact with the North via the inter-Korean liaison office if necessary,” the company said in a statement.