Seoul : North Korea said Monday that it would reopen its border to South Korean tourists and would allow reunions of divided families after months of rising tensions between the two neighbours.
Trips by South Koreans to Mount Kumgang on North Korea’s east coast as well as to the North Korean border town of Kaesong would soon begin again, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported.
Reunions of relatives divided by the 1950-53 Korean War and the inter-Korean border would restart in October, it added.
The decision was made after impoverished, Stalinist North Korea reached an agreement with South Korea’s Hyundai Group, which had been running the tourism programmes until last year.
The South Korean government halted the Kumgang trips after a Southern tourist was shot by a North Korean soldier when she allegedly strayed into a military zone, and the North put a stop to the Kaesong trips amid worsening relations.
The government in Seoul said it regarded the development as “positive” but made it clear at the same time that the decision to restart the tourism programme must be made between the two governments.
The North Korean news agency also said that Pyongyang and Hyundai had agreed to normalise traffic over the Korean border to an industrial park at Kaesong, which is jointly run by the North and South. Passage for South Korean personnel to the park would be restored, a joint statement said.
“Both sides expressed willingness to improve North-South relations and further develop cooperation for the common prosperity of the nation,” the statement said.
It was issued a day after a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Hyundai chairwoman Hyun Chung Eun in Pyongyang.
Earlier in her trip to the North Korean capital, Hyun had secured the release of a South Korean Hyundai engineer who had been working at the industrial park and had been detained by the North for four and a half months after he criticised its regime.
The industrial park as well as the tourism projects have been important sources of foreign currency for the North Korean government.
Meanwhile, North Korea put its troops on alert Monday as an annual joint South Korean-US war game commenced and accused its neighbour and the United States of planning an attack.
North Korea would react to any provocation with a “merciless and prompt annihilating strike at the aggressors with all offensive and defensive means, including nuclear deterrent”, state media quoted the high command of the Korean People’s Army as saying.
South Korean’s defence ministry played down the statement, saying it was part of Pyongyang’s usual posturing in reaction to the annual war games. A ministry spokesman said South Korea could not detect any unusual army movements in the North.
The military exercises, which were scheduled to end Aug 27, involve 10,000 US troops and 56,000 South Korean soldiers and focus on computer simulations.
Relations between North and South Korea have deteriorated since a conservative government took power in Seoul in February 2008 and took a harder line toward Pyongyang.
South Korea has repeatedly called for its neighbour to reopen dialogue, but North Korea has rejected the overtures.
Instead, North Korea has repeatedly threatened the South with a military attack and caused tensions in the region to rise after conducting a nuclear test in May and a series of missile tests before and after the atomic blast.