Kumgang Update

Update:   More here.  

Whenever you read about the Kumgang Tourism Project, which South Korea likes to tout as an initiative to reduce tensions,  consider those assertions in the context of  well-sourced suspicions that North Korea uses the proceeds for its WMD programs.  Thus, we should celebrate stories like this one from Yonhap, documenting its failure in extensive detail.  The best news is that enough people have a conscience to impede the project’s success.

SEOUL, Jan. 8 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s signature cross-border tourism project with North Korea is in trouble again, with the number of people wanting to join the tour dwindling in the midst of ongoing tension over the North’s nuclear program.

Since the tour started in 1998, about 1.4 million people, mostly south koreans, have visited Mount Geumgang, a craggy resort on the North’s east coast but the number simply was not enough to make a profit.

The problem has deepened lately as fewer South Koreans sign up for the tour, affected in part by the North’s intransigent confrontation with the international society over its nuclear arms program.

“You can say it’s becoming a sick cash cow for North Korea,” Kim Bo-hwan, a political science professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said of the troubled tourism project. “The only way to turn it around is to resolve the nuclear standoff.”

South Korea pushed the cross-border project as part of its “sunshine” policy of engaging its isolated neighbor but U.S. officials have long warned of the possibility that Pyongyang could use hard currency earned through the project for its nuclear weapons development.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill in October last year openly questioned the wisdom of the project, saying that it “seems to be more designed to give money to North Korean authorities.”

Hill denied any intention to put pressure on South Korea but the Seoul government soon afterwards decided to stop its annual financial subsidy of 2.5 billion won (US$2.7 million) to the tour operator, Hyundai Asan Corp.

Without those subsidies and in light of Resolution 1718, you have to wonder why the project continues to operate with such losses, and which such dubious diplomatic or political rewards:

According to South Korean government and Hyundai Asan officials, North Korea gets about $1 million a month from the tour project. The total amount of money paid to North Korea for the tour since 1998 is estimated at $450 million.

The tour project has never been profitable. In 2002, South Korea’s state-run Korea Tourism Corp. was forced to take over most of the facilities in the resort to rescue the financially ailing Hyundai Asan.

About 240,000 South Koreans visited the resort in 2006, far below the targeted 400,000. Hyundai Asan officials worry that the number could drop further this year unless the nuclear tension is resolved.

The number of South Korean tourists joining the tour dropped sharply after North Korea conducted its first-ever nuclear bomb test on Oct. 9, drawing strong U.N. financial and weapons-related sanctions.

Foreigners aren’t much more receptive to the lure of the UniFiction than they are toward, say, signing up to become Tokdo Riders.

Only 8,000 foreigners have visited the North’s resort from South Korea since 1998, a fraction compared with more than 6 million foreign travelers to South Korea in 2006 alone.

“Foreign tourists come here under tight schedules. This, combined with poor promotion of the tour, has resulted in few foreigners going there,” Roh Jee-hwan, a Hyundai Asan official, said, noting that reservations for the tour should be made 12 days in advance.

“They usually get to know of the tour after arriving in South Korea,” he said.

Of those, I wonder how many are Korean immigrants who hold citizenship in other countries.  Somehow, I don’t think the problem is just one of marketing.  When Prague, Killarney, Jamaica, and Capri beckon, why battle your conscience for the privilege of visiting … North Korea?

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