N. Korea’s move on projects viewed as bid to build good will
Regime will allow tours, reunions
SEOUL - North Korea’s decision to restart tours run jointly with South Korea and allow reunions of families separated for decades by the peninsula’s war is aimed at drawing much-needed foreign currency and securing the upper hand in negotiations with Washington and Seoul, analysts said.
Tours to the scenic Diamond Mountain resort and the ancient city of Kaesong, both located just north of the world’s most heavily fortified border, have been key symbols of reconciliation between the divided Koreas. But when a South Korean was shot near the mountain, with tensions already high after the inauguration of the conservative South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, the plug was pulled.
Their resumption is the latest in a series of good-will gestures from Pyongyang to Seoul and Washington after months of provocations, including pulling out of nuclear talks, test-firing a barrage of missiles, and conducting an atomic test. This month, the North released two jailed American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, to former president Bill Clinton. On Thursday, a South Korean worker at a joint industrial complex in the North - who had been detained since March - was freed.
The announcement followed a rare meeting Sunday between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Hyun Jung-eun, chairwoman of Hyundai Group, the South Korean operator of the two tour programs. Hyun, upon arrival in South Korea yesterday, said she told Kim of the conglomerate’s difficulties in its North Korean business and “he resolved them all.’’
Hyundai has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the projects aimed at promoting ties with the North, and their suspension caused serious losses. The conglomerate’s North Korea business arm, Hyundai Asan, said losses amounted to more than $130 million.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Pyongyang appeared to want to “ease its economic difficulties at a time of full-fledged sanctions’’ by resuming the tour programs - which were an important source of hard currency for the isolated regime.
North Korea’s centrally controlled economy has been in shambles over the past two decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s deprived the country of a key source of trade and aid. Subsequent mismanagement and natural disasters have also hurt the economy. An estimated 2 million people in the North died of hunger in the mid-1990s.
Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea specialist at Korea University, said the ailing Kim needs to solve the North’s deep economic malaise before handing power to one of his sons. “The issue of feeding people should first be resolved to stabilize the succession.’’ Kim, 67, who has reportedly suffered a stroke, recently indicated his youngest son would succeed him.