Located only slightly above the 38th parallel, Keum-gang Mountain (금강산) is often referred to as the “diamond of Korea” for its scenic beauty. Koreans’ profound affection for Mt. Keum-gang is apparent even from its nomenclature, in which the mountain is called by four different names that describe the varying ways in which the mountain appears in each of the four seasons. This national beauty had been off-limits to South Koreans after the ceasefire of the Korean War, until 1998 when the North Korean government started to allow South Korean and foreign tourists to visit through the private sector. In 2002, the region was made a “special administrative region” to facilitate South Korean tourist activities in the area. To many, such a move made by the North Korean government not only signified their willingness to work towards peaceful means of reunification, but also the potentials of the private sector of improving inter-Korea relations as a new approach to the issue.
Unfortunately, in July 2008, a 53-year old South Korean tourist was shot and killed for having entered a North Korean military area, according to the statement made by the North Korean government. South Korean government’s request to investigate the case was denied, and forensic tests suggested contradictions in the North Korean claim that the tourist ignored their warnings and did not adhere to their rules and directions. All tours from South Korea had been suspended ever since, and inter-Korea relationship had froze once again.
As Ministry of Unification Overseas Student Correspondents, we had the opportunity last summer to visit the areas near the tourist region on the South Korean side, including the train station that used to connect North Korea and South Korea to allow South Korean workers to commute. The station was very new and clean, but terribly empty as a result of the cessation of all inter-border activities after the incident. As we know, inter-Korean relations ever since have been at best rigid due to incidents such as sinking of ship CheonAn and attacks on the Yeonpyoung Island.
Recently, North Korean government has announced that it will nullify its contracts with Hyundai Asan, the company in charge of tourism in the Mt. Keum-gang region. Some say that this is a stab in the back, because Hyundai is a South Korean conglomerate that has been very much invested in contributing to improvements in inter-Korean relations and working towards a peaceful reunification, and thus the one-sided nullification of the contract granting Hyundai Asan a monopoly over all tourist activities in the region is perceived as nothing less than a betrayal.
But more importantly, why is North Korea doing this? Some suspect that continued fragile status of the North Korean economy is pushing the government to seek other ways of earning revenue, one of which is opening up the mountains to Chinese tourists. However, others point out that there is a lack of infrastructure to realistically invite the Chinese tourists to Mt. Keum-gang; it is estimated to take about 6-8hours to get to the region from PyoungYang, let alone anywhere in China. Given that in nullifying Hyundai Asan’s monopoly in the region North Korean government pointed out that South Korean tours will continue to be operated by the firm, they argue, this move is probably a means of pressuring Seoul to resume Mt. Keum-gang tours.
Tours to Mt. Keum-gang is certainly an unusual experience and opportunity for an ordinary South Korean, since it is the only way in which he or she can visit North Korea. But that is not why these issues involving Mt. Keum-gang deserves our careful attention. As briefly mentioned beforehand, it was the first rather successful attempt to approach unification from a different angle, using the private sector as the facilitator. It served as a precursor to the establishment of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2002, where South Korean firms were allowed to set up factories in Kaesong, a North Korean city, and hire North Korean workers to work there. Since difference in economic situations in the two Koreas is one of the biggest reasons for which some South Koreans oppose unification, these approaches would allow North Korea to rebuild its economy and ameliorate inter-Korean relations. It would be an opportunity for both governments to work together, ideology set-aside, to create a win-win situation in which both could benefit economically through cooperation, which would hopefully then transfer to diplomatic cooperation as well. South Korean government is, unsurprisingly, protesting against such a move, and we do not yet know how it will all turn out. But because economic cooperation has such prospects for amending political relations, we can only hope that these economic projects would resume in the near future for a more stable Korean peninsula.
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