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Jacob Fromer is NK News's Washington DC correspondent. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un traveled to the country’s Mount Kumgang region this week, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Wednesday, denouncing a once-celebrated tourism project set up jointly with the South as “built like makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area.”
In sharply-worded remarks, Kim was reported to have said that the famous tourist site, a hub of hotels and restaurants once hailed as a defining symbol of inter-Korean cooperation before it was closed in 2008, would be better off being managed without South Korean involvement.
The North Korean leader then ordered that buildings put up by the South be removed and replaced, KCNA said.
“The present general view is that Mt Kumgang is a common property of the North and the South and it is the symbol and epitome of the North-South relations, and that the tour of Mt Kumgang would not be possible without the development of the North-South ties,” Kim was quoted as having said.
“This is certainly a mistaken idea and a misguided understanding.”
The report continued that Kim “instructed to remove all the unpleasant-looking facilities of the South side with an agreement with the relevant unit of the south side and to build new modern service facilities our own way that go well with the natural scenery of Mt. Kumgang.”
The North Korean leader’s criticism of the joint project also appeared to reflect a recurring theme in the country’s propaganda in recent weeks — the idea that the country must prioritize “self-reliance” in order to survive and succeed.
In Kim’s view, according to KCNA, the Mount Kumgang project symbolized dependence.
“He made a sharp criticism of the very wrong, dependent policy of the predecessors who were going to rely on others when the country was not strong enough,” KCNA said, referring to Kim.
According to KCNA, while at Mt. Kumgang, Kim Jong Un toured a wide range of sites including Kosong Port, Haegumgang Hotel, the House of Culture, Kumgangsan Hotel, Kumgangsan Okryu Restaurant, and others, with state media noting that these sites were built by South Korean organizations.
Kim also visited Lagoon Samil and areas of Sea Kumgang and Kuryong Pool, according to KCNA, and was reportedly scathing in his critique of the buildings.
“Learning in detail about the service facilities in the tourist area, he said that the buildings are just a hotchpotch with no national character at all, and that they were built like makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area or isolation wards,” the readout said.
“He added they are not only very backward in terms of architecture but look so shabby as they are not taken proper care of.”
But despite his criticism of the project and its South Korean management, the DPRK leader also said he would be happy to welcome South Koreans to the resort, once the necessary improvements were made.
“He said that we will always welcome our compatriots from the south if they want to come to Mt Kumgang after it is wonderfully built as the world-level tourist destination,” state media reported.
“What is important is for our people to have the shared view that it is not desirable to let the south side undertake the tour of Mt Kumgang, our famous mountain.”
One expert told NK News that Kim’s visit and his comments show that the South will likely no longer have any more involvement there going forward, despite an agreement by the two Koreas last year that they would work together to reopen the site.
“This article’s message seems clear: Mt. Kumgang tours will no longer be an inter-Korean project, and that North Korea will now take the lead in Mt. Kumgang tourism,” said Minyoung Lee, an analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro.
“This stands in stark contrast to Kim Jong Un’s call on South Korea in his 2019 New Year’s address to resume Mt. Kumgang tours and the Kaesong Industrial Complex project and indicates that the North has decided it can no longer wait for South Korea to take action,” she said.
“Kim Jong Un’s criticism of ‘predecessors’ policy of reliance,’ and the emphasis on the need for North Korea to take the lead in this project, also track with the noticeable uptick in state media’s call for self-reliance after Kim visited Mt. Paektu last week,” she said.
Also important to note, Lee added, was Kim’s comments that he would only removed South Korean-developed buildings upon “agreement with the relevant unit of the south side.”
“It seems to suggest North Korea may be leaving the door open for the South to take some action on Mt. Kumgang tourism before it tears them down,” she argued. “At the very least, it suggests Kim does not want to drive inter-Korean relations to the edge.”
According to Chad O’Carroll, the CEO of Korea Risk Group, which owns and operates NK News, Kim’s remarks will likely also have major consequences for those in the South Korean business community with a stake in the project.
“This will also be a blow to those South Korean firms who had hoped to benefit from increasing inter-Korean cooperation as a result of Moon’s pursuit of peace,” O’Carroll said.
“Not only will those ROK firms who invested in tourism infrastructure at Mt. Kumgang likely lose their assets permanently, but contained in Kim Jong Un’s remark is a message that appears to suggest Pyongyang has no appetite for other forms of inter-Korean cooperation any time soon.”
“One thing is for sure. Mt. Kumgang will only ever be a feasible tourist spot if South Korean tourists are allowed to go there,” he added. “It has performed miserably since the abandonment of inter-Korean tourism and it’s simply too far away from the capital to benefit from visiting Chinese or Western Europeans.”
According to KCNA, Kim Jong Un was accompanied by a group officials including Choe Son Hui, the First Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs and one of the country’s top diplomats.
NK Pro analyst Lee noted that this was the first time Choe Son Hui had appeared with the country’s leader on an on-site guidance visit.
“She has appeared with Kim Jong Un for summit meetings, and to watch performances, but not an on-site visit,” Lee said.
Kim was also accompanied by Jang Kum Chol, Kim Yo Jong, Jo Yong Won, Ri Jong Nam, Yu Jin, Hong Yong Song, Hyon Song Wol, Jang Song Ho, and Ma Won Chun, according to KCNA.
Kim’s visit to Mount Kumgang also reportedly came on the same day that South Korean President Moon Jae-in — who had committed to re-opening the project on the campaign trail — delivered a speech to his country’s parliament in Seoul calling for the South to make “every effort to hold dialogue for peace.”
“Only dialogue can bring down this wall,” Moon said on Tuesday. “But we cannot speed up by ourselves since we have a counterpart and must go together with the international community.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA