(ATTN: RECASTS headline, throughout with minister's remarks, photo)
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, Dec. 2 (Yonhap) -- South Korea sees a need to repair some long-abandoned facilities it built at North Korea's Mount Kumgang resort, Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said Monday, after a news report that Seoul offered to remove those facilities in accordance with Pyongyang's demand.
The Kyunghyang Shinmun report also said that in exchange for complying with the North's demand, the South proposed talks about cooperation to develop the North's new tourist zone in the Wonsan-Kalma region on the east coast.
Kim neither denied nor confirmed the report during a discussion with a journalists' association. But he added that he sees a need to fix Mount Kumgang resort facilities that have been abandoned since the tour program was suspended in 2008.
"In the process of pushing for the tour program to Mount Kumgang, we once used containers as temporary lodging facilities. There are about 340 such containers at the mountain," Kim said.
"Since the suspension (of the tour program), they have been left unattended ... and it is true that they have been left abandoned," he said, adding businesses that used to operate facilities at the mountain also share the need for repairing them.
North Korea has demanded South Korea's removal of all its facilities there, saying that it will build a new international tourist destination of its own. It has also threatened to destruct them unilaterally unless Seoul takes action.
The demand was seen as an expression of Pyongyang's frustration amid few signs the project will resume anytime soon amid global sanctions on the North. The project was a source of hard currency for the impoverished North before its suspension.
The unification minister also urged the North to honor its commitment to normalize the long-suspended inter-Korean mountain tourism project, saying it would pave the way for "sustainable" exchange and cooperation between the two sides.
"The South and the North agreed during a summit in September last year to normalize the Mount Kumgang tour business when conditions are prepared," Kim said, referring to an agreement that President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reached at their third summit in Pyongyang in September last year.
"The agreement still remains valid," he said. "I hope that the South and the North will resolve this issue in a wise fashion and that it can pave the way for sustainable exchange and cooperation."
Launched in 1998, the Mount Kumgang tour program was regarded as a key symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and economic cooperation until it was suspended in 2008 after a South Korean tourist was shot dead near by a North Korean soldier. About 2 million tourists visited the mountain as part of the program.
Since the North's demand for destruction of South Korea-built facilities, South Korea has sought face-to-face dialogue and proposed sending a delegation to review the status of resort buildings. The North has turned the offers down, insisting on holding negotiations in writing.
The unification minister said that there are "many areas" where the two Koreas could work together in a mutually-beneficial way, urging North Korea to respond to South Korea's offers for cooperation.
He also said that it is important to find and expand the room for an "independent role" of the two Koreas, adding that strengthened inter-Korean relations could also contribute to an "irreversible turnaround" in relations between the North and the U.S.
"The situations surrounding the Korean Peninsula have become too complicated to predict," he said. "In order to secure predictability at all, it is important to manage inter-Korean relations in a stable manner."