SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- South Korea said Friday that North Korea formally proposed discussions over the possible demolition of South Korean-made hotels and other tourist facilities at the North's Diamond Mountain resort which leader Kim Jong Un called "shabby" and "unpleasant-looking."
Kim's comments published by the North's state media on Wednesday came after months of frustration in North Korea over the South's refusal to defy U.S.-led international sanctions and resume South Korean tours at the site.
Lee Sang-min, spokesman of Seoul's Unification Ministry, said North Korea sent letters addressed to South Korea's government and the Hyundai business group demanding that the South Koreans come to Diamond Mountain at an agreed-upon date to clear out their facilities.
The North Korean letters, sent through an inter-Korean liaison office in the North's border town of Kaesong, said the Koreas should work out the details of the process through document exchanges, rather than face-to-face meetings.
While protecting South Korean property rights is the top priority of the Seoul government, it will also seek "creative solutions" to the problem based on considerations for the international political environment and inter-Korean discussions, Lee said.
Lee didn't elaborate on what South Korea intends to do and avoided straightforward answers when asked whether Seoul would reject the North's demands that the facilities be razed. He also wasn't clear on whether South Korea could explore ways to restart the tours amid sanctions, but said Seoul's search for solutions may require discussions with Washington.
"(South Korea) will prepare creative solutions for Diamond Mountain tourism while sufficiently considering changed environments," Lee said at a news conference in Seoul. "There are agreements that should be made. ... We believe there's a need for a meeting between government authorities."
Lee said the North didn't issue a specific deadline for the South to remove the facilities. It's unclear what the South could do if the North starts destroying them.
Tours to Diamond Mountain were a major symbol of cooperation between the Koreas and a valuable cash source for the North's broken economy before the South suspended them in 2008 after a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean tourist.
With its hotels, restaurants, spas and a golf course left in eerie silence, the resort now draws only a fraction of the 500,000 tourists projected to come annually and lost millions of dollars for the South Korean investors.
During a visit to the site, Kim compared the South Korean properties at Diamond Mountain to "makeshift tents in disaster-stricken areas or isolation wards" and ordered them to be replaced by modern North Korean facilities that display more national character and fit better with the natural scenery. He criticized North Korea's policies under his late father as too dependent on the South while vowing that the North would redevelop the site on its own and fully control future tours, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim took another jab at Diamond Mountain's South Korean buildings while inspecting the construction of a new spa resort in central North Korea, KCNA said Friday. Kim said the "refreshing" buildings of Yangdok County Hot Spring Resort were in striking contrast to Diamond Mountain's "architecture of capitalist businesses targeting profit-making from roughly built buildings."
Seoul can't restart mass tours to Diamond Mountain or any other major inter-Korean economic activity without defying international sanctions against North Korea which have been strengthened since 2016, when the North began speeding up its nuclear and missile tests.
While U.N. sanctions against North Korea don't directly ban tourism, they do prohibit bulk cash transfers which can be created by business activities like the Diamond Mountain tours.
Experts are divided over whether the North really intends to independently develop tourism for Diamond Mountain or is pressuring the South to restart the tours and upgrade aging facilities.
In an eagerness to revive economic engagement with its rival, South Korea in October last year proposed the lifting of some of its unilateral sanctions against the North, saying they were a key obstacle to restarting South Korea tours to Diamond Mountain. But South Korea quickly backed off after U.S. President Donald Trump bluntly retorted that Seoul could "do nothing" without Washington's approval.
While noting that individual travel to North Korea doesn't violate U.N. sanctions, Lee said a revival of South Korean tours to Diamond Mountain would require international support as well as approval from the South Korean public.
Polls show South Koreans are becoming increasingly skeptical about the prospects of nuclear diplomacy with North Korea amid deadlocked disarmament talks between the U.S. and the North. Lee also said North Korea should provide stronger guarantees of the safety of South Korean tourists, considering the 2008 shooting death.
Some say North Korea would struggle to develop the area on its own under the heavy sanctions. Any tours to Diamond Mountain, located on the eastern coast near the inter-Korean border, would be dependent on South Korean travelers as North Korea's poor transport links make it difficult to bring Chinese tourists there, said Lim Soo-ho, an analyst from South Korea's Institute for National Security Strategy.
The Diamond Mountain tours were a major project of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, who gave Hyundai the rights to construct a resort town and operate tours. South Korea's government and Hyundai have built about a dozen tourist facilities in the area to accommodate the tours, which began in 1998.
North Korea said it took steps to freeze and confiscate South Korean properties at the resort in 2010 and 2011 while blaming Seoul for continuing its suspension of the tours.
In a summit last September in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed to restart the South Korean tours to Diamond Mountain and normalize operations at an inter-Korean factory park in Kaesong when possible, voicing optimism that sanctions could end, allowing such projects.
Kim raised the subject again during his New Year's speech this year, saying that North Korea was ready to restart the projects "without any precondition" while making a nationalistic call for stronger cooperation between the Koreas.
But without a breakthrough in the nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea, the economic projects remain shelved.