SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea expelled all remaining South Korean workers Tuesday from a stalled joint tourism resort in the North, putting what was once a symbol of inter-Korean cooperation in danger of collapse.
The two Koreas launched joint tours at the scenic Diamond Mountain in 1998 as part of reconciliation efforts. But the tours, which were a rare legitimate source of hard currency for the impoverished North, were suspended in 2008 after a North Korean guard fatally shot a South Korean tourist.
North Korea has called for the tours' resumption, but South Korea demands that Pyongyang apologize for the shooting death and allow a joint investigation.
An angry North Korea responded by vowing to open the resort to international investors. This week, the country ordered all South Koreans to leave the resort within 72 hours and announced it would scrap all South Korean assets there.
Fourteen South Korean and two Korean-Chinese workers at the resort subsequently left and returned to the South across the border on Tuesday, said Park Sung-uk, a spokesman at Hyundai Asan, the resort's South Korean tour operator.
South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea, on Monday expressed regret over the North's decision. It said Seoul will take some unspecified legal and diplomatic action unless the North withdraws its measures.
Ties between the two Koreas plunged to one of their lowest points last year as the North shelled a South Korean island and allegedly torpedoed a South Korean warship. Fifty South Koreans were killed. The two Koreas are still technically at war because their conflict in the 1950s ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Despite the apparent meltdown of the joint tour project, there have been recent glimmers of diplomatic hope on the Korean peninsula. Senior officials from the United States and both Koreas have met to discuss the possibility of restarting long-stalled negotiations meant to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons aspirations.