North Korea opens up its mountain
by Asia Times Online
SEOUL - North Korea said this week it will allow a South Korean business group to start sightseeing tours of a scenic mountain on its border with China next year, as agreed at a recent inter-Korean summit of leaders.
Pyongyang's contract with the Hyundai Group will enable South Koreans to visit the 2,744-meter-high Mt Paektu by direct flight. Currently, South Koreans can only visit the Chinese side of the mountain.
"Both sides agreed to start the tour of noted places on Mt Paektu from May of 2008," the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)said of the contract signed between Hyundai Group
chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun and Choe Sung-chol, vice chairman of the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, a North Korean state organization handling inter-Korean affairs.
Hyun, back from a five-day trip to North Korea, met reporters in Seoul and confirmed the contract. "Under the agreement, Hyundai Group will have exclusive rights to operate the tourism business to Mt Paektu for 50 years," Hyun said, disclosing that she also met with the North's top leader, Kim Jong-il, during her stay in the communist country.
The sightseeing tour of the tallest mountain on the Korean Peninsula expands Hyundai's business with North Korea, which currently includes a cross-border tour of Mt Kumgang on the North's east coast. More than 1 million South Koreans have visited the mountain since the tours started in 1998.
Most Koreans regard Mt Paektu as a holy area where their mythical leader, Tangun, descended from heaven and established a kingdom. North Korea claims that its current leader, Kim Jong-il, was also born there 65 years ago, an event heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountain and a new star in the heavens. (However, former Soviet Union records show he was born in Siberia, in 1941, where his father, Kim Il-sung, commanded the 1st Battalion of the Soviet 88th Brigade, made up of Chinese and Korean exiles.)
North Korea also claims that the mountain was a base for the independence movement against Japan's colonial rule of Korea led by the communist nation's founder, Kim Il-sung, in the early part of the 20th century.
Hyundai has been at the vanguard of business with North Korea since its founder, Chung Ju-yung, crossed the heavily armed demilitarized zone with truckloads of cattle in 1997. Hyundai's business in North Korea also includes the Kaesong industrial complex, where about two dozen garment and other labor-intensive South Korean firms operate with the labor of more than 15,000 North Korean workers. The project started as a result of the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000.
Establishing tourism to Mt Paektu was a lifelong dream of Chung Ju-yung, who died in 2001. Chung handed over the group's North Korean business arm to his fifth son, Mong-hun, who committed suicide in 2003 amid suspicions that the group was involved in the government's secret transmittance of huge sums of money to Pyongyang in return for the 2000 summit.
His wife, Hyun, immediately took charge of the business.
"My trip to the North was very productive," Hyun said. "Details of the Mt Paektu business will be discussed at the working level."
Speaking about her meeting with the North Korean leader, she said "I met him for the first time in two years. He asked about my daughter and we talked a lot about personal things." Hyun said she is happy to realize her father-in-law's dream.
In addition, the North's Asia-Pacific Peace Committee decided to grant Hyundai Group the right to conduct tours of the Kaesong area. "Both sides agreed to start the tour of historic sites and scenic places in the Kaesong area from early December 2007," the KCNA reported.
Meanwhile, the South Korean government, together with the Hyundai Group, plans to survey Mt Paektu this month to prepare for the start of tours next year, industry sources said. "The preliminary survey by government officials and Hyundai will thoroughly check Mt. Paektu," said an official from Hyundai.
The quest for peace
North Korea has yet to express its official stance on a proposed declaration of the end of the Korean War, but a pro-Pyongyang newspaper that reflects the North's views called the declaration an essential and inevitable part of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The newspaper, Choson Sinbo, published in Japan, said the situation on the Korean Peninsula will be greatly improved when the heads of state from North Korea and the US declare the end of the 1950-53 conflict, which ended in a fragile armistice that left the peninsula technically in a state of war.
"It is an inevitable process for the US and North Korea to focus on the declaration of the Korean War when the September 19 joint statement reached at the six-nation talks will have to enter the full-fledged implementation stage," said the Choson Sinbo.
In an article datelined from Pyongyang, the paper said that if the leaders of the US and North Korea meet on the Korean Peninsula and declare the end of the war, they will break the chains of the Cold War in Northeast Asia.
The paper's remarks are interpreted as meaning that North Korea hopes its leader Kim Jong-il and US President George W Bush meet on the Korean Peninsula and declare the end of the Korean War before the complete implementation of the September 19 agreement at the six-party talks in 2005.
"North Korea will act in accordance with the accord at the six-way talks and abide by the timeline of the disablement of nuclear facilities," the paper said.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim held a summit in Pyongyang on October 3 and signed a 10-point joint declaration the next day calling for peace and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Notably, the two leaders agreed to jointly push for a summit of three or four parties to discuss declaring the end of the Korean War and signing a Korean Peninsula peace treaty.
Under the six-nation agreement, the North started disabling its nuclear facilities as part of an aid-for-denuclearization accord reached in February. A US inspection team went to Pyongyang last week to monitor the disablement process.
The process, intended to make it difficult and costly for North Korea to restart its nuclear programs, is the second phase of a broad six-nation agreement reached in September 2005 between South and North Korea, the US, China, Russia and Japan.
Pyongyang implemented the first stage of the six-party agreement by shutting down its primary nuclear facilities, and is now required to disable them and disclose the country's nuclear stockpile by the end of this year.
The paper's views on the establishment of a peace regime are closer to Seoul's stance than that of Washington. After the inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, Roh said the declaration of the end of the Korean War could be made even before the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program is verified.
In a recent interview with a Japanese newspaper, however, Roh said that discussions on a Korean Peninsula peace treaty will not be completed in the foreseeable future, due to a huge amount of time required and the very complicated nature of the procedures.
Following the declaration, discussions by the four concerned countries - the Koreas, the US and China - on converting the 1953 ceasefire into a peace treaty can be simultaneously pursued together with the denuclearization of North Korea, Roh said in the interview with the Asahi Shimbun.
"It's needless to say that the declaration of the end of the Korean War and a peace treaty [on the Korean Peninsula] have to be implemented on the premise that North Korea abandons its nuclear program," said the president. "But the dismantlement of the nuclear program will actually take a long time. So it is unrealistic [for the concerned countries] to begin procedures for a peace treaty after the drawn-out nuclear dismantlement finally comes to an end."
Roh's stance is slightly different from the position of the US, which has insisted that an official declaration of the end of the Korean War is not practically possible this year, as the verifiable denuclearization of North Korea is a prerequisite to both declaring the end of the war and signing a peace treaty.
On November 1, South Korea's Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said South Korea hopes to start talks with concerned countries on officially ending the Korean War when the denuclearization has reached a "proper stage", not after North Korea's complete denuclearization.
But the US has expressed a different view. Alexander Vershbow, Washington's chief envoy to Seoul, said his nation will oppose a declaration until North Korea completely and verifiably dismantles all of its nuclear weapons and programs.
Also on November 1, top US nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill reiterated the US position that Washington cannot begin discussions on a peace treaty until the North completes its denuclearization.
Hill, the US assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said any discussions would be conducted "with the understanding that we would not conclude any peace arrangement until there's denuclearization". Hill made the remarks after arriving at Incheon International Airport to hold talks with Chun Yung-woo, South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, to discuss the disablement plan.
The peace talks issue is expected to be a key topic during Song's meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled for this week in Washington, according to ministry officials.
"When the denuclearization process that is now underway makes progress and, in the view of related countries, reaches a proper stage, then I believe their leaders can come together and produce a certain kind of declaration," Song told a meeting with foreign correspondents in Seoul.
North Korea is entitled to receive 1 million tons of energy assistance from the other parties of the nuclear talks, along with political incentives such as the normalization of its relations with the US and Japan.