Kaesong tour to have limited influence in ramping up peace mood

Sohn Suk-joo

North Korea on Wednesday opened the main street of its medieval capital city to South Korean visitors, including Seoul’s top unification official, for the first time in half a year.

The move raised hopes for providing an impetus for improving the inter-Korean relationship, which hangs in the balance since the communist country’s surprise nuclear device test in October last year.

But analysts cautioned the trip will likely have a limited impact on bringing the South-North Korean relations back to the pre-nuclear test level, and the fate of the six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear weapons program may hold the key to their economic partnership.

Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung and his entourage toured downtown Kaesong, the capital of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), which has been closed off to South Korean citizens since July 2006 in retaliation for the South’s refusal to allow the North to change its South Korean tour partner.

Lee’s trip came just a few days after North Korea notified South Korean officials that it withdrew plans to change its partner for tours of Kaesong, suggesting Hyundai Asan Corp., the operator of the tourism business at the North’s Mount Geumgang, will soon promote the city tour to South Korean citizens.

Some analysts were quick to interpret the reopening of downtown Kaesong as part of North Korea’s efforts to cash in on hard currency to improve its people’s lives. North Korea is expected to undergo yet another bad food crisis in March or April as United Nations sanctions over its nuclear weapon test are put in place.

In its joint New Year editorial, North Korea stressed it will focus on solving the economic plight facing its people.

“North Korea is eager for more economic gains, but it is very worried about the volatile political situation in South Korea ahead of the presidential election,” said Lim Eul-chul, a research professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

Lim, traveling with the unification minister in Kaesong, said the smooth operation of the Kaesong economic complex and the city tour will be very limited in exerting influence on improving the inter-Korean relationship.

“After all, the developments of the six-party talks will largely decide the fate of the inter-Korean relationship, so it is too early to be optimistic,” said Lim, who also made a trip to Pyongyang last week and talked with North Korean scholars and officials.

The latest six-party talks — involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia — ended in Beijing in December without any progress or a date set for the next round. The six-nation talks started in August 2003.

But envoys to the talks said the negotiations could resume in a few weeks, and separate talks between the U.S. and North Korea over the financial sanctions were likely to be held on Wednesday in Beijing, according to reports.

In Berlin last week, Christopher Hill, the top U.S. negotiator at the nuclear talks, and his North Korean counterpart Kim Kye-gwan reconfirmed the principle of the September 2005 agreement, which is to ensure aid and security guarantees for the North in return for its nuclear disarmament.


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