South Korean Leader Considers Letting Its Tourists Visit North Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — President Moon Jae-in of South Korea on Tuesday called for economic exchanges with North Korea, including allowing visits there by South Korean tourists, to help ease tensions and encourage the North to resume talks with the United States.

North Korea has already said that it would welcome tourists from the South as the heavily sanctioned country seeks new ways to earn hard currency. Tourism is one of the few North Korean industries not covered by sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council and Washington to squeeze the North’s ability to earn foreign currency.

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, recently declared that his country no longer expected​ a breakthrough in deadlocked negotiations ​with Washington ​over how to denuclearize ​the ​North ​nor the lifting of American-led United Nations sanctions​. He said his country would​ instead​ rebuild its economy without the help of relief from the sanctions that were imposed over the North’s weapons programs.

To increase tourism, North Korea has recently opened seafront resorts or ski and spa complexes, all built in part to attract tourist cash from abroad, mainly China.

Speaking during a nationally televised news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Moon, a tireless advocate for dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, said it was too early to give up hopes on North Korean-United States negotiations. One way to help revive diplomacy is to increase South-North Korean economic cooperation and exchanges​ as an incentive for the North to return to the negotiating table, Mr. Moon said.

“The South and the North should not just look to North Korean-United States dialogue and should instead increase South-North Korean cooperation a bit as a way to expedite North Korea-United States dialogue,” Mr. Moon said. “There are things the South and the North can easily do. For instance, tour programs, especially individual tourists, are something we can probe because they are not banned ​under international sanctions.”

​Under United Nations sanctions, countries cannot buy coal, iron ore, textiles, fish and other key export items from the North. But foreign tourists can visit North Korea.

The last South Korean tourists visited the North in 2008, when Seoul withdrew from a jointly run inter-Korean resort town at Diamond Mountain, or Kumgang, just north of the inter-Korean border. The resort was opened in 1998 and, until it was closed in a dispute over the shooting death of a South Korean tourist, served as a major source of foreign currency for the cash-starved North, frequently hosting South Korean tour groups.

In October, North Korea said it would rebuild the long-abandoned town on its own after demolishing “shabby” hotels and other ​South Korean-built facilities there. But Mr. Kim said the North would “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.”

Mr. Moon has long argued that the United States should offer incentives, including easing sanctions, in return for concrete steps North Korea would take toward denuclearization. When he met Mr. Kim in April and September 2018, Mr. Moon presented bold ​plans for inter-Korean economic cooperation, including the reopening of the Diamond Mountain tour resort​ and the rebuilding of the North’s decrepit railways​.

But such visions remain in blueprint form ​while the country faces sanctions that ban all major international investments in the North.

Mr. Kim and President Trump met in Vietnam in February 2019 for a second summit meeting, but they parted ways without an agreement on how fast North Korea should dismantle its nuclear programs and how soon Washington should lift sanctions.

North Korea’s attitude has since turned cold toward Washington. It has also begun heaping scorn on Seoul’s efforts to facilitate dialogue between the North and the United States, calling them “presumptuous.”

Despite such ridicule, Mr. Moon said on Tuesday that his government would not abandon its efforts. He said South Korea would seek cooperation from the United States to get inter-Korean exchanges exempted from sanctions.​ Washington remains wary of giving such exemptions, fearing that they could weaken an international resolve to enforce sanctions on the North​.

In their latest messages, North Korea and Mr. Kim did not completely abandon dialogue ​ with Washington, although they made vague threats about showing off “new strategic weapons” and to abandon a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, Mr. Moon said.

But Mr. Moon warned that the time for diplomacy was running out fast as Mr. Trump was expected to focus more on his re-election campaign in the coming months.

“I think neither North Korea nor the United States has a lot of time on its hands,” he said.

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