Kim’s other gambit
Assets at Geumgang resort should be preserved
North Korean leader Kim Jongun has ordered the removal of facilities owned by South Korean firms from the resort complex at Mount Geumgang, regarded as a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
According to North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Wednesday, Kim said the resort — left abandoned for over a decade — is full of “shabby” facilities that are “disharmonious” with the scenic mountain during a recent visit to the area. He ordered officials to begin talks with the relevant South Korean companies on destroying the facilities so that the North can redevelop the area on its own.
We note that the report came shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump said there was “very interesting” information on North Korea, without elaborating. During a Cabinet meeting at the White House, Monday, Trump said there will be a “major rebuild” at some point, reiterating that he maintains a good relationship with the North’s leader.
Presumably, Kim’s visit to Mount Geumgang carries some significant message to the U.S. and South Korea regarding the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions. Last year, the two Koreas agreed to resume tours to Mount Geumgang and reopen the Gaeseong Industrial Complex early based on the consensus that they should be exempted from UNSC sanctions. But the U.S. has reportedly linked lifting sanctions on the projects to how North Korea fulfills its pledge to abandon its nuclear program. As the U.S.-North Korea denuclearization talks remain deadlocked, there has been little progress in resuming the two economic projects. South Korea’s tours to Mount Geumgang were launched in 1998, but were suspended in 2008 after a female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard. Pyongyang confiscated or froze South Korean assets at the resort after the tour suspension.
By visiting the now-defunct resort, Kim is seemingly urging Washington to lift or ease sanctions on the tours. This is particularly apparent as Kim was accompanied by First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, the North’s de facto top diplomat.
The KCNA report also highlighted Kim’s displeasure toward President Moon Jae-in and his administration. In criticizing the South’s inaction regarding the resumption of the tour program, Kim even scolded bureaucrats who stick to a “wrong” policy toward South Korea that was formed a long time ago under the rule of his father. On Kim’s order, North Korea may soon offer talks on how to deal with the South Korean assets at the resort.
“It is a mistaken idea and a misguided understanding to say that Mount Geumgang is common property of the two Koreas, and tours to the mountain will not be possible without the development of inter-Korean relations,” Kim was quoted as saying.
The Geumgang and Gaeseong inter-Korean projects were carried out under Kim’s predecessor, his father Kim Jong-il. It may have been shocking for North Koreans to see their leader publicly criticize his father.
In a sense, this could have been intended by Kim to break the grip of inertia among officials handling inter-Korean projects and to spur economic development in general.
One thing looks clear at the moment. This will be another incident proving that North Korea is a risky place for investment and economic cooperation.