This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered the removal of several South Korean-made buildings, including hotels, at Mt. Kumgang, a special inter-Korean tourist zone in North Korea that was at one time jointly operated.
According to an article published Wednesday by North Korea’s state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim and an entourage of officials inspected the tourist zone and the North Korean supreme leader described the South Korean buildings as “just a hotchpotch with no national character at all,” likening them to temporary structures to be used in disaster relief efforts.
He added that they were “backward in terms of architecture” and they looked “shabby,” and not properly taken care of.
KCNA reported that following the inspection, Kim ordered that all the South Korean buildings be removed and that newer buildings constructed under North Korean guidelines should replace them in a way that does not interfere with Mt. Kumgang’s natural beauty.
Kim said that the notion that North Korea needs to work with South Korea in ventures like Mt. Kumgang is false.
“Mt Kumgang is our land won at the cost of blood and even a cliff and a tree there are associated with our sovereignty and dignity,” he said.
After South Koreans were first allowed to visit Mt. Kumgang in 1998, the special tourist region was established in 2002. Between 2002 and 2008, more than a million South Koreans visited the site, known for its natural beauty.
In July 2008, following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist, South Korea suspended tours to the resort, after which North Korea expelled South Korean workers.
The resort was a major source of income for the cash-strapped North and it has repeatedly asked the South to resume tours, but these requests were met with South Korean demands for concessions from the North on its nuclear and missile programs.
Kim Jong Un even asked South Korean President Moon Jae-in to reopen the resort during their first meeting last year. South Korea naturally said it would only consider resuming tours as part of a larger denuclearization agreement with the United States.
Deliberate lashing out
Experts see Kim’s order to demolish the South Korean buildings in Mt. Keumgang as a deliberate lashing out at the South over its unwillingness to decouple itself from the United States’ push for denuclearization.
“I assume that Kim Jong Un is sending a message to President Moon Jae-in that he is very unhappy with South Korea’s policy of insisting on progress toward denuclearization as a condition for resuming North-South economic cooperation, including Kumgang mountain,” Gary Samore, a senior fellow for the Korea Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told RFA’s Korean Service.
“So this is Kim Jong Un’s way of telling South Korea that their hope for revitalizing North-South economic projects is disappearing, because South Korea continues to withhold agreement to resume Kumgang mountain unless there’s progress on denuclearization,” Samore added.
Samore said he believed the message was aimed only at South Korea. CNA’s Ken Gause, however, said that the message was also intended for the United States.
“I think this is definitely aimed at sending a strategic message to both the U.S. and South Korea that change is coming unless we change something in terms of our engagement with North Korea, which basically mean putting sanctions relief on the table,” said Gause, director of CNA’s Adversary Analytics program.
“That’s why Choe Son Hui was at this inspection in Mt. Kumgang because her presence there really kind of made it very clear to the U.S. This message was aimed at the U.S. and the U.S. needs to take different strategies. Having her there reinforces that message.”
Choe Son Hui is a senior North Korean diplomat with long experience in negotiations with the United States. She was an interpreter at the six-party talks early in her career and was a central figure at the 2018 and 2019 U.S.-North Korea summits in Singapore and Hanoi.
Meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner said the development was ominous for future inter-Korean relations.
“I think it is really a bit of another nail in the coffin in inter-Korean relations. [Kim Jong Un] perceives that President Moon is unable to deliver on economic benefits North Korea originally thought Moon would be able to do,” said Klingner.
“Moon, as eager as he is to provide economic benefits to improve relations, is very constrained by international sanctions as well as U.S. law. So, as much as South Korea wants to invigorate the Kaesong [Industrial Complex] and Kumgang economic ventures, they can’t, because the U.S. isn’t going to give them permission for sanctions exemption,” Klingner added.
Dr. Sangsoo Lee, Head of the Stockholm Korea Center suggested that the move was an attempt to fast track development of the zone to accommodate Chinese tourists.
“I think Kim [Jong Un] needs to speed up the completion of those special tourist zones to host a much larger number of Chinese tourists. Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to Kim that he would send more Chinese tourists, and Kim thinks that the outdated facilities at Mt. Kumgang constructed by South Korea’s Hyundai [conglomerate] won’t serve that purpose and must be replaced,” said Lee.
“Kim could have been urging the North Koreans to complete the tourist district at Mt. Kumgang as soon as possible and at the same time, he wanted the extra benefit of sending messages to South Korea by saying that the old South Korean hotel should be removed and replaced with new North Korean-style structures,” he added.
In the KCNA article, Kim Jong Un was reported as saying the creation of the Mt. Kumgang tourist zone was a “mistaken policy of the predecessors,” a rare case of criticism of former leader Kim Jong Il, his father. Such public criticism is unheard of in North Korea, and would likely be punished if uttered by anyone else.