S. Korea to link hometown visits for divided families with individual tourism to N. Korea

Posted on : 2020-01-16 18:17 KST Modified on : 2020-01-16 18:17 KST
Unclear whether Pyongyang would issue tourist visas to S. Korean citizens
Divided families say farewell on the last day of the second round of the 21st divided family reunions at Mt. Keumgang Hotel on Aug. 26, 2018. (photo pool)
Divided families say farewell on the last day of the second round of the 21st divided family reunions at Mt. Keumgang Hotel on Aug. 26, 2018. (photo pool)

After South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his commitment to advancing inter-Korean relations in his New Year’s press conference on Jan. 14, while putting up a trial balloon about individual tourism, senior officials in his administration have come forward to elaborate his ideas.

“Individual tourism is not subject to UN sanctions,” said Kim Sang-jo, new chief of policy at the Blue House, during an appearance on KBS on Jan. 15. “This is something we can do at the current stage.”

“Among several areas, the government is focusing on the possibility of cooperating on inter-Korean tourism [including individual tourism],” said Unification Secretary Kim Yeon-chul.

Kim Eun-han, deputy spokesperson for the Unification Ministry, went a step further in the daily press briefing on Wednesday. “Provided that measures are taken to guarantee the safety of South Korean citizens, we could seriously consider allowing individual tourism. We’re looking into various possibilities related to this.”

The Unification Ministry has been internally reviewing the possibility of individual tourism to North Korea since Kim Yeun-chul’s appointment as unification minister in April 2019; more recently, officials there have been fleshing out a plan that would combine individual tourism with hometown visits by members of families divided by the Korean War.

On Dec. 31, 2019, the Unification Ministry announced that it would be “promoting new approaches, such as hometown visits,” as a way of promoting divided family interaction in the private sector. This announcement assumed that divided family members would be traveling with Chinese travel agencies or transiting through other countries on their way to visit hometowns in North Korea.

Individual tourism requires S. Korean amendments and US cooperation

There are quite a few issues that must be overcome. First, the North Korean government will have to agree to issue visas. Second, this will require the support of the South Korean public and the amendment of domestic laws. Third, Seoul will have to secure the cooperation of the US, which has been stressing international cooperation on sanctions against the North.

Seoul has its reasons for linking divided families and individual tourism. While tourism doesn’t fall under UN sanctions, combining it with the humanitarian issue of the divided families would provide more solid ground for easing the American government’s concerns about South Korea defecting from sanctions cooperation while also securing robust support from the public.

The critical question is whether North Korea will agree. The North has never issued a tourist visa to South Korean citizens trying to visit via another country without a formal government invitation. For individual tourism to be feasible, visas would need to be issued even when no invitation has been given. Since a visa itself presumes a guarantee of physical safety, the simple act of issuing visas could resolve concerns about safety.

Current law states that South Korean citizens who wish to visit the North must submit a “document confirming that an organization or government body in North Korea has issued an invitation” (Article 12, Clause 2, of the Enforcement Decree of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act) before their visit can be approved by the Minister of Unification.

In short, before divided family members can visit their hometowns in North Korea or individual tourism to the North can go ahead through visas alone, without invitations, there will have to be public or private deliberations between the South and North Korean governments, and South Korean law will also have to be amended.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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