SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Wednesday that its leader, Kim Jong Un, had ordered the demolition of South Korean hotels and other buildings in a resort complex that the two countries once operated together.
The resort town at Diamond Mountain, or Kumgang, just north of the inter-Korean border, opened in 1998, at a time of reduced tensions between the Koreas. Until it was closed during a dispute in 2008, it served as a major source of foreign currency for the cash-starved North, frequently hosting South Korean tour groups.
Kim said during a recent visit that the South Korean facilities were “shabby” and lacked “national character,” comparing them to “makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.
Kim has pressed South Korea to reopen the complex since last year, when he first met with the South’s president, Moon Jae-in. But the South said it could only consider doing so as part of a broader agreement between the United States and North Korea to end the North’s nuclear weapons program.
Kim called for “building new modern service facilities our own way that go well with the natural scenery of Mount Kumgang.” He also criticized what he called “the mistaken policy of the predecessors” — a reference to his father, Kim Jong Il, the North’s previous dictator — for the decision to “rely on others” for the resort project, meaning the South.
Such criticism of the ruling Kim family’s policies would be a capital crime for most North Koreans. But since he took power in 2011, Kim Jong Un has often broken that tradition, notably by criticizing state-run factories and construction projects as unproductive, as he has tried to rebuild his country’s economy.
A key element of Kim’s plan for building a “self-reliant” economy, in the face of international sanctions over his nuclear program, is developing tourism along its scenic east coast and near Mount Baekdu along the Chinese border. Tourism is excluded from the sanctions that the United Nations has imposed on the North.
The Diamond Mountain resort was Kim Jong Il’s major effort in the tourism sector. He gave the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai the right to build and run a resort town there, in a joint venture with his totalitarian government. Starting in 1998, Hyundai built or renovated hotels, port facilities, restaurants, spas, a concert hall and a golf course at the scenic spot.
Nearly 2 million South Korean tourists visited before it was closed, helping North Korea earn hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when was struggling to recover from a devastating famine.
Diamond Mountain was one of the most visible symbols of an era of inter-Korean cooperation that ended in 2008, when a new, conservative government took power in Seoul. That government, led by President Lee Myung-bak, suspected that the tourist revenue was going to the North’s nuclear weapons development. It pulled Hyundai out of the project after a North Korean security guard shot and killed a South Korean tourist who apparently had wandered into a restricted area.
Since then, North Korea has occasionally threatened to confiscate and liquidate the shuttered South Korean properties at Diamond Mountain, whose value has been estimated at $400 million. The resort has occasionally been used to host reunions of families separated during the Korean War.
North Korea has recently invited tourists from China and other countries to the mountain for hiking trips, according to news reports.
On Wednesday, Lee Sang-min, a spokesman for the South’s Unification Ministry, said South Korea hoped to hold discussions with North Korea to defend its property rights at the resort. Hyundai said it was closely watching for further developments.
But Kim indicated that North Korea was no longer interested in letting South Koreans run the facilities again, although they would be welcome to visit.
“He said that we will always welcome our compatriots from the South if they want to come to Mount Kumgang, after it is wonderfully built as the world-level tourist destination,” the North Korean news agency said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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