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North Korea takes over Mt. Kumgang tourist area, further dimming Sunshine legacy

North Korea has taken control of Mt. Kumgang, a jointly maintained tourist area in which South Korea's Hyundai Asan had invested more than $1.5 billion for a hotel, hot springs, shopping mall, and a road inside the North.

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An agreement between the US and North Korea, signed at Geneva in 1994 for North Korea to abandon the nuclear program in exchange for twin light-water nuclear energy reactors, broke apart eight years later with the discovery of a separate, secret uranium-enrichment program. North Korea also has not lived up to agreements reached in six-party talks in 2007.

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Until the killing of the tourist, however, Hyundai Asan was still bringing South Korean and foreign tourists daily to Kumgang. The influx of tourists seemed to prove the success of the “sunshine” policy that the late Kim Dae-jung, president of South Korea from 1998 to 2003, had propounded when he flew to Pyongyang in June 2000 to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il for the first inter-Korean summit.

The downward spiral

The dream turned tragic when Chung Ju-yung’s fifth son, Chung Mong-hun, the chairman of Hyundai Asan, jumped to his death from Hyundai headquarters in August 2003 amid investigation into the channeling of hundreds of millions of dollars through Hyundai Asan to North Korea to get Kim Jong-il to agree to the summit.

North-South relations by that time were on a downward spiral after the conservative President Lee, elected in December 2007, cut off donations of rice and fertilizer that Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, had showered on the North for a decade.

The standoff over the death of the tourist assumed a much broader significance as Mr. Lee demanded the North give up its nuclear program as a prerequisite for aid. Now, the abrogation of North Korea’s agreement with Hyundai Asan on Kumgang endangers occasional “reunions” of divided families, agreed on at the June 2000 summit and held at Kumgang.

Paik Hak-soon, a veteran analyst of North Korea at the Sejong Institute here, says Kim Jong-il did apologize for the shooting when he received Chung Mong-hun’s widow, Hyun Jeong-eun, now in charge of Hyundai Asan, in Pyongyang in August 2009. “South Korea never accepted this kind of apology,” says Mr. Paik. Lately, he adds, Ms. Hyun has been asking “why South Korea is not moving at all.”

Still, the outlook is not entirely bleak. A Hyundai Asan official blames the standoff on “the hard-line stance” of both sides. “In the near future, we are trying to resume our business,” he says. “It will take a little time,” but “we are prepared for any situation.”

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