The business arm of Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church received South Korean government permission to start tours to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, the first such visits in half a century.
Church-owned Tongil Group's auto venture in North Korea, Pyonghwa Motors Co., will take as many as 2,000 South Korean tourists to the communist country's capital by year-end, South Korea's government said in a statement.
"We want to see what the response is before we decide to continue tours next year,'' said Huh Do, a spokesman for Pyonghwa Air Travel, the Pyonghwa Motors unit arranging the tours.
The visits are the first since the Korean War ended in 1953 and will include the first commercial flights between at Incheon and Pyongyang. The North is seeking better ties with the South amid a standoff with U.S. about its nuclear weapons program.
The South's Hyundai Group has continued tours to the North's east coast Mt. Geumgang resort even as tensions have increased since the nuclear crisis began in October. The company has never made a profit from the trips.
Pyonghwa's first five-day trip to Pyongyang will leave Sept. 15, Huh said. Participants must attend a half-day class on dos-and-don'ts in the North, will have their movements restricted and will be banned from speaking to North Koreans, he said.
The package costs 2.2 million won ($1,878) a head and includes transportation, meals, North Korean guides and four nights at Botongkang Hotel, partly owned by Tongil. Pyonghwa spokesman Kim Byung Gyu said the company will get 7 percent of sales, with the North's government keeping the balance.
Tongil began talks with North Korea in April to start tours, Kim said. The start of operations was delayed by the severe acute respiratory epidemic, which prompted the North to limit travel, and tension caused by the nuclear standoff, he said.
The Unification Church, with 3 million followers in 137 countries, has been controversial since Moon founded it in 1954 after fleeing to South Korea from the North. It owns media companies including the conservative Washington Times newspaper.
Moon, 83, has said he the Messiah, saying Jesus "called him'' in 1935. Followers of the Washington-based group consider Moon and his wife the world's "True Parents.'' Moon was excommunicated by the Korean Presbyterian Church for his theology and he emigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s.