SEOUL (REUTERS) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said South Korean facilities in the North's Mount Kumgang tourist resort must be removed and rebuilt in a modern way, state media reported on Wednesday (Oct 23), underscoring the cooling of relations between the two countries.
Mount Kumgang, along with the Kaesong industrial zone, has been one of two major inter-Korean economic projects and symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas during decades of hostilities following the Korean War.
But Mr Kim, while inspecting the tourist spot on the east coast of North Korea, said it was a "mistaken idea" for Mount Kumgang to be viewed as a symbol of North-South relations.
The resort is North Korean soil, and tourism there must not be under the control of South Korea, he said.
"We will always welcome our compatriots from the south if they want to come to Mount Kumgang after it is wonderfully built as the world-level tourist destination," he added.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs said it was examining the North’s intentions.
"If there’s any request from the North, we’re always willing to hold discussions from the aspects of protecting our citizens’ property rights, the spirit of inter-Korean agreements and the resumption of tours to Mount Kumgang," ministry spokesman Lee Sang-min told a briefing on Wednesday
North and South Korea had been exploring the prospect of re-starting joint economic projects before a recent cooling in relations.
North Korea has criticised the South for adopting high-tech weapons and continuing joint military drills with the United States.
South Koreans were allowed to visit Mount Kumgang starting in 1998 by sea and from 2003 by land, with South Korean firms such as Hyundai Asan Corp investing in the tourist resort.
However, South Korea suspended tours to Mount Kumgang in 2008 after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who had wandered unknowingly into a military area.
Hyundai Asan said in a brief statement it was perturbed by the report of Mr Kim’s pledge but it would "respond in a calm manner" to developments.
Hyundai Elevator, the majority shareholder of unlisted Hyundai Asan, fell 6.6 per cent, while shares in Ananti , which owns a golf and spa resort in Mount Kumgang that has been closed since 2008, were down 7 per cent.
South Korea-funded facilities have remained there since then but tours from the South have not resumed amid international sanctions trying to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programmes.
Only infrequent inter-Korean events, such as reunions of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War, have been held there since.
Mr Kim criticised the "mistaken policy of the predecessors" who were dependent on others to develop the tourist spot, and said Mount Kumgang must be taken care of as part of a larger tourist area that encompasses the mountain and the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area, KCNA said.
Wonsan-Kalma is a major development project pushed ahead by Mr Kim after he came to power.
Tourism has increasingly became one of the focal industries not under international sanctions central to Mr Kim’s policy of "self-reliant" economic growth.
"The entire people should cherish the belief that self-reliance is the only way to live," North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun said in a separate commentary on Wednesday.
"There is nothing more foolish than to expect help from others today."
The resumption of Mount Kumgang tours has been repeatedly mentioned as a possibility by South Korean President Moon Jae-in in recent years.
During a summit in Pyongyang in September 2018, Mr Moon and Mr Kim agreed to normalise Mount Kumgang tours and the Kaesong industrial complex "as soon as the environment is created", Mr Moon announced at the time.
In April, US President Donald Trump was asked his stance on the possibility of restarting tours to Mount Kumgang before a summit with Mr Moon.
"This isn’t the right time, but at the right time, I’d have great support," Mr Trump said, according to South Korean presidential office records.
"They have unbelievable location... surrounded by sea on two sides, the other side Russia, and China and over here SK," Mr Trump said.
"You just can’t do better than that. And they have magnificent land. It has tremendous potential."