N. Korea keeps South Koreans away from downtown Kaesong

Sohn Suk-joo

North Korea Wednesday banned a tour of downtown Kaesong by South Koreans in an apparent protest against Seoul’s decision to scale down a Buddhist pilgrimage program to an ancient temple there, sources here said.

North Korea closed off downtown Kaesong to South Koreans in retaliation for the South’s refusal in July 2006 to allow the North to change its South Korean business partner for tours of the city. But since January, it has opened the main street of the medieval capital city to South Korean officials and tourists off and on.

On Wednesday morning, North Korean authorities did not allow some 60 Woori Bank officials to tour the heart of the city, and canceled a scheduled trip by South Korean financial supervisory officials to Kaesong the following day, according to the sources.

“According to industry sources, the North’s measure comes as a result of the South’s limiting of a pilgrimage program to Yongtong Temple,” said Kim Kyu-cheol, president of the South-North Forum, a civic group for inter-Korean economic cooperation.

The South’s Unification Ministry limited the number of pilgrimages to once a month, even though the North agreed to an unconditional number of pilgrimages to the restored temple as long as it could charge each tourist US$50.

Cheongtaejong, one of South Korea’s major Buddhist orders, also protested the decision, saying it would limit freedom of religion as many Buddhists are waiting to make a visit.

The government decision was made after North Korea requested a new deal on its tour business in 2005. The North wanted an agreement with Lotte Tours Co. despite having exclusive contract with Hyundai Asan, operator of the Mount Geumgang tours.

The South Korean government rejected the North’s request, saying the change could happen only if Hyundai Asan voluntarily pulls out of the business.


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