By Kim Junghyun
SEOUL, April 23 (Xinhua) -- Conflicts deepened between the two warring Koreas Friday over ill-fated cross-border tour programs, as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) announced earlier in the day it will confiscate South Korean properties inside a resort at Mount Kumgang.
In a statement carried out by the official Korea Central News Agency, Pyongyang said it will either take over the ownership of the frozen assets or hand them over to a new business partner, the strongest measure in a recent series of steps toward nullifying all inter-Korean tourism deals.
FRAGILE SYMBOL OF PEACE
Tours to a scenic mountain and a historic border town, flourished under a decade of liberal rule of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, have been a longstanding but fragile symbol of peace on the Korean Peninsula, still divided in half following a civil war half a decade ago.
Mount Kumgang tours, launched in 1998 and run by South Korea's Hyundai Asan Corp., had attracted more than 1.95 million South Korean tourists until a fatal shooting incident put the tour program on hold in 2008.
Tours to a border town of Keasong, home to an ancient capital of an early Korean dynasty, were launched in 2005 as a pilot project and fully ran since December 2007, attracting several hundreds of tourists on a daily basis.
With the conservative President Lee Myung-bak in office, which already strained the inter-Korean ties by his pledge to get tougher on the northern neighbor, Kumgang tours were completely suspended after a female tourist was shot dead by a DPRK soldier. Kaesong tours were also suspended in the same year, further souring Seoul-Pyongyang ties.
Eight local firms, including Hyundai Asan and the state-run Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), own properties in the resort area worth 360 billion won (31 million U.S. dollars) in total. Hyundai Asan President Cho Gun-sik, meanwhile, resigned over financial woes of the company.
The five facilities set to be confiscated include a Seoul-run reunion center for separated families in the two Koreas, a duty free shop, a hot spring, a culture center and a fire station. Observers say confiscation of the reunion center will be especially outrageous for Seoul, which considers issues of separated families a humanitarian challenge.