SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea on Friday said it issued an ultimatum to South Korea that it will tear down South Korean-made hotels and other facilities at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort if the South continues to ignore its demands to come and clear them out.
The North Korean statement came weeks after leader Kim Jong Un visited the site and ordered the demolishment of South Korean properties he described as “shabby” and “unpleasant-looking” while vowing that the North would redevelop the site on its own.
For months, North Korea has expressed frustration over the South’s unwillingness to defy U.S.-led international sanctions against the North and resume South Korean tours at the site.
The North later formally demanded the South Koreans come to Diamond Mountain at an agreed-upon date to clear out their facilities and proposed an exchange of documents to work out details.
South Korean tours to Diamond Mountain were a major symbol of cooperation between the Koreas and a valuable cash source for the North's broken economy before the South suspended them in 2008 after a North Korean guard fatally shot a South Korean tourist.
South Korea has said it will prioritize protecting its property rights and seek “creative solutions” to the problem based on political considerations and inter-Korean dialogue. But the North has so far rejected South Korean calls for face-to-face discussions or sending a delegation to inspect the site.
In the new statement, North Korea ridiculed the South over “begging us to let them stay even at a corner of the mountain” and participate in future tourism programs after halting the joint tours for more than a decade “in fear of the U.S.”
“On November 11 we sent an ultimatum, warning that if the (South Korean) authorities persist in their useless assertion, we will take it as an abandonment of the withdrawal, and take resolute measure for unilaterally pulling down the facilities. However, they have remained answerless until today,” the statement said.
“The (Diamond Mountain), the best in the world, which all the world people want to see saying ‘see Mt. Kumgang and then die’ is clearly neither the common property of the (North and the South) nor the place symbolic of (North-South) reconciliation and cooperation,” it said.
“We will develop Mt. Kumgang to be the world-renowned tourist resort with responsibility and in our own way as its owner for the sake of the nation and posterity. There is no room for (South Korea) to find its place there.”
Kim Eun-han, spokesman of Seoul’s Unification Ministry, confirmed that the North sent what it described as an “ultimatum” this week but without issuing a specific deadline. He said Seoul will continue to propose inspections and face-to-face meetings between the Koreas over the fate of the resort.
South Korea's government and companies including Hyundai have built about a dozen tourist facilities in the area, including hotels, restaurants and spas, to accommodate the tours, which began in 1998.
“The government maintains its position that the Diamond Mountain issue must be resolved through dialogue between the South and North and will calmly deal with the situation while closely coordinating with the tour operator,” Kim Eun-han said. “We call for North Korea to respond to our position.”
He didn’t provide specific answers when asked what Seoul could do if the North begins tearing down the South Korean facilities.
Seoul can't restart mass tours to Diamond Mountain or any other major inter-Korean economic activity without defying international sanctions against North Korea, which have been strengthened since 2016, when the North began accelerating its nuclear and missile tests.
While U.N. sanctions don't directly ban tourism, they prohibit bulk cash transfers which can result from business activities like the Diamond Mountain tours.
Experts are divided over whether the North really intends to independently develop tourism for Diamond Mountain or is pressuring the South to restart the tours and upgrade aging facilities.
Some say the heavily sanctioned North would struggle to develop the area by itself. They say any tours to Diamond Mountain, located on the eastern coast near the inter-Korean border, would be dependent on South Korean travelers because North Korea's poor transport links make it difficult to bring Chinese tourists there.
In a summit last September in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed to restart South Korean tours to Diamond Mountain and normalize operations at an inter-Korean factory park in the North Korean border town of Kaesong, voicing optimism that sanctions could end and allow such projects.
Kim raised the subject again during his New Year's speech this year, saying that Pyongyang was ready to restart the projects "without any precondition" while making a nationalistic call for stronger cooperation between the Koreas.
But without a breakthrough in larger nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, the inter-Korean economic projects remain shelved. North Korea in recent months has suspended virtually all diplomacy and cooperation with the South while demanding Seoul break away from its ally Washington and restart inter-Korean economic activities.