THE test tour went off at an unseemly time, as a group of some 100 South Koreans made the first crossing of a mine-cleared section of the Demilitarised Zone to travel to Mt Geumgang this week.
The excitement of those who joined the landmark trip was scuttled by the looming fears of another armed conflict on the peninsula. The idea of cross-border tourism to a North Korean resort at this chaotic period may itself appear hopelessly naive and unrealistic.
The protracted nuclear face-off between the United States and North Korea is threatening to take the most undesirable - and unnecessary - course with both sides escalating their war rhetoric. The political scene in Seoul is no less perturbing as the rival parties are pitching their hostile voices over the Kim Dae-jung administration's suspected “purchase” of the 2000 summit from the cash-hungry North.
The mutual offensive between Washington and Pyongyang is increasingly feared to spill over the verbal limits. Following the Pentagon's decision to put 24 long-range bombers on alert for possible transfer to bases near Asia, the White House said it was prepared for “very robust plans for any contingencies involving the North's terrorist regime.”
The reported debate in the US capital about the possible reduction and repositioning of the US troops here also appears out of step with this vulnerable moment.
Due to its inapposite timing, the historic opening of the DMZ is even more noteworthy. The first crossing of the Cold War's last frontier through a corridor other than the truce village of Panjunjeom enabled a pilot trip by concerned officials of the Seoul government and Hyundai Asan, the flagship firm for Hyundai Group's North Korean projects.
Some 400 civilian leaders are scheduled to drive along the overland shortcut in another pilot trip to the mountain resort next week, thanks to Hyundai's ambitious modification to its money-losing cruise tour.
It is a painful question whether Hyundai should suspend its disputed business with North Korea pending a solution to the egregious payoff scandal. The crumbling chaebol group faces mounting pressure from anti-communist conservatives, including the opposition Grand National Party (GNP), to halt all business projects in the North.
This apparently logical contention lacks insight for the ultimate goal of all inter-Korean economic cooperation programmes - building mutual confidence and lasting peace among the divided nation down the bumpy road to reunification.
Considering its towering significance as a symbol of detente between the two Koreas, the Mt Geumgang tour must be sustained regardless of the ongoing turmoil.
This is not to say it is without problems. On the contrary, some outstanding shortcomings including the amount and payment method of the “entrance fee” have already been debated. They must be resolved through sincere consultation between the concerned authorities of the North and South, so the tour can continue as a pet project in this early stage of reconciliation efforts.
The GNP would do well to have its members join the tour as often as possible. Leaving the business of probing the scandal to those responsible, the representatives of the rival parties would be wise to think together on how to remodel the South's aid programmes in ways to persuade the North to change its ways.
In this regard, working together to save the endangered tour would be a useful first step in introducing transparency in other inter-Korean economic co-operation projects.
Politicians must rack their brains to find ways to co-operate beyond partisan interests and ideological stripes to end the current chaos at an early date. It is imperative that they wake up to the reality on the ground. This cannot be the time for internal bickering but to pull together all energy to deter threats from outside.
The opposition GNP, in particular, should come to terms with its repeated defeats in presidential elections and status as a majority parliamentary group. The party needs to be reborn as a productive political entity to make up for the governing party's policy mishaps.
In light of its magnitude, the summit deal scandal would be a crucial touchstone for the opposition to grow up and contribute to peace and welfare of the nation. Without harmony and consensus at home, maintaining peace is to remain a far-fetched dream.