North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the removal of hotels and other tourist facilities South Korea built at the North’s Kumgangsan resort, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.
“The mere sight of shabby facilities built by the South offends me,” the agency quoted Kim as saying to officials while inspecting the resort. “Kim instructed the officials to remove all of the facilities after agreement with the South and build modern service facilities our own way that go well with the natural scenery of Mt. Kumgang,” it reported.
The facilities are South Korean property. Kim threatens the South even though he was in the wrong. Given that his orders are unquestioned and absolute in North Korea, the facilities will very likely be demolished sooner or later, with or without an agreement with the South.
Kumgangsan tours started in November 1998, but the South suspended them in 2008 after a North Korean soldier fatally shot a South Korean tourist there. The North did not apologize nor did it take measures to prevent similar incidents. In 2010, it froze and confiscated South Korean assets at the resort unilaterally. The following year it canceled Hyundai Asan’s exclusive rights to the tour business and expelled all of the South Korean workers there.
In their summit in Pyongyang on Sept. 19 last year, South and North Korea agreed to “normalize Kaesong industrial park and Kumgangsan tour business when conditions are met.” North Korea urged the South to restart the tour business without regard for what Washington thinks. In his New Year’s address for this year, Kim expressed willingness to resume the projects without preconditions. The South, for its part, tried to reopen them, but no progress has been made. And now Kim has ordered the removal of South Korea’s Kumgangsan facilities. His change of attitude seems to be an expression of dissatisfaction.
However, Pyongyang undoubtedly knows very well why there has been no progress. The South could not defy UN sanctions against the North to restart the projects without a guarantee of denuclearization. The only way to revive the projects is to make significant progress in negotiations to denuclearize the North. But the negotiations fell through, because the North was passive on the issue. Kim’s instruction to dismantle Kumgangsan facilities is unreasonable and unconvincing.
Pyongyang rejected South Korea’s food aid, ignored its proposal to work together to prevent the spread of African swine fever and would not allow a South Korean cheering squad and reporters to enter the North for a World Cup soccer preliminary match between South and North Korea in Pyongyang. These responses make one question if it is right to keep trying to win over the North.
Kim’s instruction also demonstrates how easily economic projects with North Korea can go down the drain. The facilities were constructed by a South Korean company apparently to the benefit of the North. Nevertheless, its soldier killed a tourist, it seized the assets and it canceled the business rights unilaterally. And now it says it will destroy the facilities.
The instructions came just a day after President Moon Jae-in in his address to the National Assembly mentioned a “peace economy” where peace on the Korean Peninsula and inter-Korean economic cooperation continue to reinforce each other.
The North treats the South as a pushover.
Wise and stern responses are needed. Unless dealt with properly, the North’s unruly behavior will get worse. But no one in the administration criticizes the North even as South Korean property is at risk of evaporating.
Old or new, the facilities are South Korean property that the government is obligated to protect. The North confiscated the facilities unjustly. Seoul must give Pyongyang a warning and take every possible measure to protect them.
The administration must stop treating the North as if it is a rational and normal state. Kim must stop the self-injurious behavior and the government in Seoul must respond sternly. Which company will invest in North Korea if its property is not protected?