About the Author
Daniel Wertz is Program Manager at the National Committee on North Korea.
This commentary reflects the personal views of the author and does not represent the perspective of the National Committee on North Korea.
In his 2020 New Year’s Address, South Korean President Moon Jae-in emphasized “the need to find realistic ways to further advance inter-Korean cooperation,” even in the absence of progress in U.S. nuclear talks with North Korea. In a press conference later that week, President Moon said that facilitating individual South Korean tourist travel to the North could be one such measure.
The initiative appears to remain in an embryonic stage, but South Korea’s Unification Ministry has said that it is reviewing “diverse measures” to facilitate such travel if North Korea were to allow it and to guarantee the safety of South Korean tourists.
The proposal comes as inter-Korean relations have fallen far from the summitry and lofty expectations of 2018, with Pyongyang repeatedly rebuffing the Moon administration’s recent attempts at outreach.
Frustrated at South Korea’s adherence to UN sanctions despite promises of economic engagement, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last fall called for the removal of South Korea-built facilities from the Mount Kumgang resort, saying that the mountain should no longer serve as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation. In his lengthy speech at a Party plenum meeting, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un barely even mentioned the South.
South Korea’s proposed tourism initiative has also exposed a new fault line in the U.S.-ROK alliance, already under considerable strain from the Trump administration’s demands that Seoul radically increases its cost-sharing contributions to support the U.S. military presence on the peninsula, among other factors.
The public back-and-forth also plays into North Korea’s hands by putting further strain on the U.S.-ROK alliance
Although tourism to North Korea is not directly prohibited by UN sanctions, U.S. Ambassador to the ROK Harry Harris has publicly argued that South Korea should discuss any tourism initiative with the U.S. before moving forward with it, given the possibility of incidental sanctions violations.
An official in South Korea’s presidential office called Ambassador Harris’s remarks “very inappropriate,” saying that inter-Korean cooperation is “a matter for our government to decide.”
The U.S. and UN sanctions regimes are indeed a tripwire that could complicate prospective South Korean tourists’ travel to the North.
Yet the central matter putting Seoul and Washington at odds with one another is essentially about policy preferences, rather than sanctions technicalities: the Moon administration is urgently trying to keep the diplomatic process with North Korea alive, while the Trump administration is committed to maintaining its economic pressure campaign.
BARRIERS TO MOUNT KUMGANG TOURISM
Under the May 24 Measures imposed after the 2010 attack on the ROKS Cheonan, South Korea effectively prohibits its citizens from tourist travel to the North. South Korean group tours to the Mount Kumgang resort built by Hyundai Asan have been suspended since a South Korean tourist was killed there in 2008.
Even if it were to amend its own policies, the resumption of group tours at Mount Kumgang would be functionally impossible without exemptions to the UN sanctions regime. Financial sanctions would effectively leave Hyundai Asan without any mechanism for making large-scale payments to the North Korean government for rent or visitor fees.
UN sectoral sanctions would also bar Hyundai Asan from exporting goods necessary to operate, maintain, and repair its aging facilities, and prohibitions on public support mean that the South Korean government would not be able to subsidize the project or insure against the political risk of another closure in the future.
Furthermore, Kim Jong Un has made it clear that he has no interest in allowing the facilities built by Hyundai Asan to remain at Mount Kumgang, and that South Koreans would be welcome there only after the resort is rebuilt according to his specifications.
With a resumption of Mount Kumgang tours therefore not feasible in the near future, South Korea is left with two broad sets of options for re-establishing tourist travel to North Korea (assuming, of course, that North Korea is amenable).
First, the two Koreas could re-establish cross-DMZ tours to Kaesong, as briefly operated in 2007-08, and perhaps extend these trips to destinations further afield. Second, South Koreans could journey to North Korea via China, perhaps joining established mechanisms for tourist travel.
SANCTIONS ON CROSS-DMZ TRAVEL
Per the terms of the Armistice Agreement, the U.S.-led UN Command controls the southern half of the DMZ, and therefore plays a key role in facilitating inter-Korean travel over land. But it appears that the UN Command has taken a broad interpretation of how to enforce the UN’s sectoral sanctions, which among other things prohibit the export of metals, machinery, vehicles, and luxury goods to North Korea.
Routine travel across the DMZ would likely entail the temporary transfer of such prohibited goods into North Korea – a tourist may want to bring their smartphone or jewelry with them, or a tour bus would make a return trip from South to North and back again.
The UN Command seems to view such temporary transfers as being prohibited by the UN sanctions regime, as Ambassador Harris indicated in remarks expressing concern about items contained in the luggage of South Korean travelers to the North.
The central matter putting Seoul and Washington at odds with one another is essentially about policy preferences, rather than sanctions technicalities
In addition to UN sanctions concerns, South Korean travelers to North Korea could potentially be in violation of U.S. export control regulations if they temporarily bring certain goods containing 10% or more U.S.-origin content with them into North Korea. U.S. Forces Korea, through its leadership role in the UN Command, may feel the need to ensure that these export controls are enforced.
If the UN Command strictly enforces restrictions on the temporary transfers of certain goods to North Korean territory, it could make the logistics of inter-Korean travel quite complicated. This barrier wouldn’t necessarily be insurmountable, but it might lead to awkward workarounds.
TOURIST TRAVEL VIA CHINA
UN Member States have some discretion in how they interpret and enforce UN sanctions, and Beijing does not seem particularly concerned with temporary transfers of personal goods into North Korea. International tourist travel to North Korea via China has thus been ongoing (at least, until the recent restrictions to tourism due to attempts in preventing the spread of the coronavirus).
Specialist travel firms like Koryo Tours have continued to bring Westerners (other than U.S. passport holders) to North Korea, and Chinese tourism to North Korea surged since Beijing and Pyongyang began to mend fences in 2018.
If Seoul and Pyongyang were to both permit it, there is no reason why South Korean travel to the North via China would be categorically any different than travel by Europeans and Canadians, at least from a sanctions perspective. For the Moon administration, this might be the path of least resistance.
Yet concerns related to UN sanctions, as well as the specter of more aggressive U.S. secondary sanctions enforcement, could still cast a shadow over any form of South-to-North tourism.
There are no international banking channels through which a foreign tour operator could legitimately send payments to a North Korean financial institution, and UNSCR 2094 prohibits Member States from providing “any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes.”
The UN sanctions do not prohibit all commercial activities involving North Korea. Individual cash payments made to North Korean parties to facilitate the travel of a small tour group may be small enough to fall under a “bulk cash” threshold, and most of the North Korean organizations involved in the tourism industry have not been directly placed under UN or U.S. sanctions designations tying them to North Korea’s WMD programs (the important exception here is Air Koryo, which both the U.S. and South Korea have unilaterally tagged with sanctions designations).
Yet conducting due diligence on North Korean entities for a nexus to sanctioned activities or parties is a difficult task, and money is fungible – particularly in a state without private property rights.
North Korea’s notorious Office 39, which is sanctioned by the UN, has reportedly received revenue from tourism. If the U.S. embarks on a “Maximum Pressure 2.0” campaign against North Korea, as some advocates suggest, then North Korea’s tourism industry could potentially become a target of future U.S. sanctions enforcement.
South Korea and the United States may differ in their interpretations of the UN sanctions resolutions targeting North Korea, as well as in their policy preferences. But the quick shootdown of South Korea’s trial balloons on tourism does not look like it will serve either country’s interests.
The Moon administration’s apparent lack of private consultations with the U.S. before announcing its tourism plans underscore the tensions in the bilateral relationship. Perhaps, with prior discussions, the two sides could have reached some sort of common understanding, rather than seeing this dispute playing out in public.
The swift U.S. pushback against the Moon administration’s tourism proposal has, in turn, reinforced a (not unfounded) perception among the South Korean public that Washington is treating Seoul as a subordinate rather than a partner.
The public back-and-forth also plays into North Korea’s hands by putting further strain on the U.S.-ROK alliance, and may have saved Pyongyang the burden of having to respond to the South’s initiative.
It is far from certain that North Korea would welcome an influx of South Korean tourists, or be willing to agree to any protocol that would provide minimal safeguards against their arbitrary arrest or detention. Pyongyang currently does not provide visas to tourists with South Korean passports, and treats members of the Korean diaspora differently than other visitors to the country.
To have South Korean citizens routinely touring around Pyongyang and other urban areas would be far more threatening to the regime than allowing South Koreans to visit an isolated resort in the mountains, cut off from the general North Korean population.
The North Korean government would no doubt attempt to minimize uncontrolled contact between South Koreans and its own citizens. However, the lack of a language barrier would make it far more challenging for North Korean minders to prevent unwanted interactions involving South Koreans, as compared to Western or Chinese tourists.
At a minimum, the regular presence of South Korean tourists around the country might lead to more North Koreans asking themselves questions about the real state of affairs on the peninsula.
The transformative effects of having more contact, whether direct or indirect, between North and South Koreans could well outweigh the negative consequences of allowing the North Korean regime to earn hard currency through more tourism revenue.
But if the Moon administration’s tourism proposal does somehow gain traction, despite the strong odds against it, South Korea’s government would do well not to readily accept rigid North Korean strictures on contact with its citizens as an inevitable part of any tourism agreement. The onus should be on Pyongyang to explain why it is necessary to prohibit the North Korean people from freely interacting with their brethren from the South.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham