(News.com.au) - IMPOVERISHED North Korea has agreed to allow South Koreans to tour a scenic mountain on its territory bordering China from next year in an expansion of tourism business between the two Koreas.
The North's official Korean Central News Agency said late yesterday organisers from both nations agreed in Pyongyang to launch tours of Mount Paekdu beginning May in 2008.
The deal was a follow-up to the summit agreement between the two Korean leaders last month to set up the first direct flights between Seoul and Mount Paekdu to boost tourism. Both sides had then failed to set a timeline.
A South Korean survey team will visit the scenic mountain to work out details, according to the South's Hyundai Group which says it has won 50-year exclusive rights for business in Mount Paekdu from the North.
"My trip to the North was very productive," Hyundai Group chief Hyun Jung-Eun told journalists yesterday after returning from her five-day trip to North Korea to sign the deal with Pyongyang.
Mount Paekdu, 2744m high, is the highest peak on the Korean peninsula. It has hot springs and other natural scenery.
It is revered by most Koreans as the birth place of Korea's first ancient kingdom, Gojoseon. North Korea has frequently used the mountain's sacred image to help build up a personality cult for Kim's family.
A growing number of South Koreans have been heading to the mountain via China in recent years.
Industrial estimates put the number of South Koreans on the roundabout tour at 100,000 every year.
China, owner of half the mountain - called Changbaishan in Chinese - has stepped up development of the area in an apparent bid to list it as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site and to host the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Hyundai has maintained close business ties with Pyongyang since its 1998 launch of a first cross-border tour of Mount Kumgang on the North's east coast.
More than a million South Koreans have since visited the mountain.
Hyundai has since extended its business into tours and development in the North's border town of Kaesong where a South Korea-funded industrial complex is currently continuing to expand.