Seoul says ready to talk to North on resuming resort tours
SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is ready to talk to Pyongyang about resuming tours to the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea if the safety of travelers can be guaranteed, an official said on Wednesday.
New President Park Geun-hye has pledged to seek dialogue to ease tensions with Pyongyang that have surged since fresh U.N. sanctions were imposed on North Korea following its February 12 nuclear test.
Seoul's position is that no South Korean tourists will visit the scenic mountain on the east coast of the Korean Peninsula until the North gives assurances there won't be a repeat of the shooting death of a civilian in 2008, which halted trips.
"We have said many times that safety is more important than anything else in order for the Mount Kumgang tours to resume," said Park Soo-jin, spokeswoman for the Unification Ministry, which handles Seoul's ties with the North.
"If there can be a guarantee of safety, we believe there will be a resumption (of tours) without much difficulty," Park said, adding that such a guarantee would immediately lead to talks on details.
The resort, built by South Korea's Hyundai conglomerate, opened in 1998 as a symbol of reconciliation between the two Koreas. It was major source of cash for the impoverished North, bringing in half a billion dollars over a decade.
North Korea expressed regret for the death of the South Korean woman who had strayed into a restricted area while on an early morning walk but has refused to agree to Seoul's demands for safety assurances.
It later seized properties inside the resort and opened the area to Chinese tour operators to pressure the South to ease its demands.
The two Koreas have traded barbed words in recent weeks.
Pyongyang this month announced it was scrapping the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.
On Wednesday, the North's foreign ministry accused the United States of threatening a nuclear strike by flying strategic bombers over the Korean Peninsula as part of military drills with Seoul and vowed unspecified actions in response.
President Park's predecessor Lee Myung-bak stopped economic aid and most commercial exchanges with the North to try to push Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear weapons project but saw tensions peak with two military attacks on the South in 2010.
(Reporting by Jack Kim, Editing by Dean Yates)