SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea on Wednesday rejected North Korea's proposal to hold talks on resuming a joint tourism project in the North, demanding that Pyongyang first give back South Korea-owned buildings it has seized at the resort.
North Korea has recently made a series of conciliatory gestures apparently aimed at winning outside aid and maintaining stability while leader Kim Jong Il transfers power to his youngest son. But the North's scenic Diamond Mountain resort project is still a sore spot between the rivals.
The two Koreas started tours to the mountain in 1998 as part of reconciliation efforts. Seoul stopped the program in 2008 following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier near the resort. An angry North Korea shut down South Korean buildings at the complex in April, but the North last week proposed talks on the tours, which are a rare legitimate source of hard currency for the impoverished country.
On Wednesday, South Korea said it will not hold talks until the North gives back the property it seized at the mountain.
Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo told reporters that holding talks now would be inappropriate. "The condition is not right," she said.
Lee said Wednesday that North Korea did not immediately respond to the South Korean demand for the return of its property at Diamond Mountain.
The two Koreas are still technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Relations between the divided Koreas sank to their lowest point in years after March's deadly sinking of a South Korean warship near the tense Korean sea border.
Despite that spike in tensions, the North has recently reached out to the South, releasing American and South Korean detainees and expressing its willingness to restart international nuclear disarmament talks it has boycotted since last year, originally in protest over outside condemnation of a long-range rocket test.
From late October to early November, the North also hosted reunions for hundreds of families separated by the Korean War. During that time, it also briefly returned the resort buildings it had confiscated, including a reunion center, a restaurant and a shop. The North, however, again started sealing keyholes and slapping stickers on the doors of those buildings last week, according to Hyundai Asan, the mountain resort's South Korean tour operator.
Hyundai Asan has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into joint projects in North Korea. Those include the now-stalled tours to the mountain resort, an ancient temple and other historical sights in Kaesong city, and a joint industrial park where South Korean-run factories employ North Korean workers. The industrial factory park, an important symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, has continued to operate despite the bad feelings that followed the warship sinking.