South Korea proposes timetable for tourism talks with North


South Korea’s unification minister sent a message yesterday to his North Korean counterpart proposing a new date and venue for negotiations on resuming stalled tourism programs that allowed locals to visit the reclusive communist country, an apparent attempt to gain more control over the tenuous relations between the two nations.

The Unification Ministry said yesterday that Minister Hyun In-taek’s message was addressed to Kim Yang-gon, the director of the Unification Front Department of North Korea’s Workers’ Party.

Hyun proposed the idea of holding a working-level meeting on the issue on Feb. 8 in Kaesong, which is located just across the border in the North.

The message served as a reply to the North’s earlier proposal to meet this week to discuss the fate of the tourism programs, which ran for about 10 years but ended in 2008.

The North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a nongovernmental organ overseeing inter-Korean cooperation projects, proposed earlier this month that the two Koreas meet at the Mount Kumgang resort in the North today and tomorrow.

Kim, the North’s key South Korea policy maker, also chairs the committee, which previously oversaw the tourism project along with the South’s Hyundai Asan.

“Although Kim also heads the committee, we decided it was more appropriate to send the message to the director of the Unification Front Department of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, because he is in charge of inter-Korean relations under that official title,” said Unification Ministry spokesman Chun Hae-sung.

Tours to Mount Kumgang ended in July 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean solider. In December of that year, tours to Kaesong were also shut down.

Seoul has maintained its position that the death of the tourist must be investigated thoroughly by South Korean authorities in order to resume the travel programs. Seoul also demanded that Pyongyang establish safety measures for tourists through inter-Korean talks.

While the North proposed discussing the stalled tour programs through civilian channels, the South apparently wanted to have government-to-government negotiations on the matter. By naming Kim as the recipient of Hyun’s message, Seoul is signaling to Pyongyang that the two are the chief negotiation partners.

The officials met in Seoul last August, when Kim visited the city as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s delegate to express condolences over former President Kim Dae-jung’s death.

If the North accepts the offer to join discussions on the tour program, a series of inter-Korean talks will take place next month.

The two Koreas had already agreed to meet on Feb. 1 to discuss pending issues related to the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint business area in the North where many companies from the South have operations.

Last week, the North’s military also proposed a round of working-level negotiations this week related to the Kaesong complex.

But the South’s Defense Ministry said yesterday it wants to defer the date to February. “It will be effective to have the talks after the Feb. 1 Kaesong discussion,” the ministry told the North in the message. “We will send you the new date at an appropriate time.”

Seoul also informed Pyongyang yesterday about its plan to send 10,000 tons of corn to the North.

“We informed the North that the corn aid will be sent from China’s Dalian to the North’s Chongjin,” Chun said. “We told them it will take at least 40 days to purchase, pack and ship the corn.”

Seoul made the offer to provide food aid in October last year, but Pyongyang was reluctant to accept it. On Jan. 15, the North finally said it gave the green light to the aid shipment.