SEOUL (Reuters) - Pyongyang said on Sunday it would expel “unnecessary” South Korean staff from a mountain resort in the North, escalating tension over the killing of a South Korean tourist last month.
A tourist from the South was shot dead on July 11 when she wandered into a military zone near the scenic Mt. Kumgang resort, a South Korea-run enclave just north of the heavily militarized border.
Relations between the two Koreas have chilled since as Seoul was angered by the North’s refusal to cooperate with an investigation and halted tours to the resort.
A spokesman for the North Korean army unit stationed in the Mt. Kumgang area issued a statement to reiterate an earlier explanation that the tourist had ignored demands to stop, and accused the South of “driving the frozen inter-Korean relations to a catastrophic phase”.
“We will expel all the persons of the South side staying in the Mt. Kumgang area we deem unnecessary,” the spokesman said, according to the North’s official news agency KCNA.
Although tourism has been suspended, tour operator Hyundai Asan has kept staff there for maintenance. Seoul’s Yonhap News said there are about 300 South Koreans staying at Mt. Kumgang.
“We will take strong military counter-actions against even the slightest hostile actions in the tourist resort,” the spokesman said, adding the passage of people and vehicles to Mt. Kumgang through the military demarcation line will be more strictly limited.
The army was taking those steps to cope with “grave provocation” from South Korea that is trying to pass on the blame to the North, the spokesman added.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it regretted the North’s decision and called for Pyongyang’s cooperation.
“Our stance is firm that the both side must conduct an appropriate investigation and take steps to protect tourists and prevent a recurrence in the future,” the ministry said in a statement. “We have to normalize the tourism soon and further the ties between the two Koreas.”
A breakthrough may come this week, as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will have a chance to talk to Pyongyang’s number two leader during his visit to China from August 8-9, Yonhap News said.
Yonhap reported on Sunday, citing an unnamed source, that the presidential Blue House was preparing for a meeting between Lee and Kim Yong-nam, head of the presidium of the North’s Supreme People’s Assembly, during a luncheon hosted by China in Beijing.
North Korea said Park Wang-ja, 53, strayed deep into a military area and ran away from a soldier, who tried to stop the “intruder” several times before opening fire.
South Korean investigators said on Friday that Park was likely shot at closer range as she was standing or walking slowly, contradicting the North’s explanation.
Reporting by Rhee So-eui; Editing by David Fox