South Korea Mulls North Korea Visits Despite U.S. Pushback


(Bloomberg) -- South Korea is considering different ways to allow its people to travel to North Korea despite a U.S. warning to proceed with caution in visiting a country under extensive international sanctions.

The Unification Ministry said Monday the government is looking at measures that include allowing South Koreans to go to North Korea directly through previously established land crossings or going through a third country in a tour group. The latter option would help South Koreans travel to major cities in North Korea, including the capital Pyongyang.

The tourism initiative comes after the South Korea presidential office last week criticized U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris for suggesting that the U.S. government should be consulted first. The latest dispute added to heightened tensions between the allies over U.S. demands for South Korea to pay more for hosting American troops.

Harris said tourism is allowed under sanctions but some of things visitors take with them could be prohibited under the sanctions, which were imposed on North Korea to punish it for its testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Tourism allows cash-starved North Korea to obtain hard currency and significant flow of money to Kim Jong Un’s regime could undermine President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure campaign to squeeze its economy through sanctions. Moon has called for a resumption of projects with North Korea seeing them as a way to establish trust and security on the heavily armed peninsula.

North Korea’s Kim has pushed for increased tourism and in an address to mark the new year highlighted one of his pet projects in the coastal city of Wonsan, which has been undergoing a tourism face-lift. For months Pyongyang has rebuffed Moon’s calls for talks, telling South Korea to stay out of the way in its dealings with Trump and advising Seoul to “behave prudently” and “not to be reduced to a fool heading nowhere.

Kim last year also threatened to tear down South Korean-built structures at a resort constructed at North Korea’s Mt. Geumgang, delivering a blow to Moon’s plans to bring back the now-frozen project once seen as a symbol of reconciliation.

In 2008, South Koreans were ordered to vacate the resort after a 53-year-old woman vacationer who wandered close to a North Korean military facility in the area was shot and killed. More than 2 million South Koreans had visited the scenic mountain site located near the border before it was shut down.

Tourists paid a fee to enter North Korea and Pyongyang took a cut on all the money the South Koreans spent on food, lodging and tours. The U.S. raised worries at the time that North Korea used funds from Mt. Geumgang to help pay for its weapons programs.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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