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South Korea signals return to North Korea's Mount Kumgang tourist resort

Seoul has authorized South Korean businesses to return to the jointly run Mount Kumgang tourist resort in North Korea, where a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean female tourist in 2008.

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Chinese tourists visiting a golf course which has been closed for over three years at the Mount Kumgang international tourist zone in North Korea on September 1, 2011. (GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Seoul has apparently moved to restart operations at the Mount Kumgang tourist resort that it used to run jointly with North Korea, five years after a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean female tourist there.

According to the Yonhap news agency, South Korea has approved 14 business projects related to Mount Kumgang (also spelt Geumgang).

Once a thriving resort and a symbol of cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang, shops in North Korea's Mount Kumgang are now shut, hotels vacant and the golf course empty.

The resort, set in a lush region on North Korea's east coast, opened in 1998 as a jointly-run scenic spot for South Koreans.

However, tours there were suspended after a North Korean soldier shot dead a visitor from the South who had strayed into a restricted zone in July 2008.

The incident led to a tit-for-tat similar to what the world witnessed last month, when North Korea blocked access to the Kaesong industrial complex it shares with the South: The South Korean government suspended tours at Kumgang, and North Korea said it would remove South Korean workers from the area.

Yonhap pointed to a notification on the Ministry of Unification's website showing that approval was given on Feb. 15 to businesses wishing to "engage in various business operations at the scenic mountain resort." KBS World reported that the companies had asked to operate photo studios or stores.

Many observers in Seoul are surprised that the government is approving companies who want to set up shop there – right after a suspension of commerce at Kaesong.

The approvals coincided with South Korea's new president, Park Geun Hye, taking office on Feb. 25. 

They were painted by KBS as an effort to improve South-North relations, as part of a trust-building process by Park. By lifting sanctions on North Korea, some believe, Seoul can help draw Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

The move may have a more practical purpose, however: It effectively gives South Korean businesses in Mount Kumgang, which have been paralyzed since the resort ws closed, the right to apply for financial compensation from the government, one source told Yonhap.

Geoffrey Cain contributed to this report from Seoul.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/north-korea/130508/north-korea-tourism-mountain-Kumgang-pyongyang-hotels