SEOUL — Although U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals can legally sign up for new private car tours to North Korea, U.S. Forces Korea reiterated its own travel ban Wednesday.

Private cars will be allowed to travel to North Korea’s Mount Geumgang resort beginning Monday, a spokesman for the Hyundai Asan tour company confirmed recently.

However, a 2006 USFK policy letter bans travel to North Korea by U.S. servicemembers, Defense Department civilians, invited contractors and dependents, unless the trip is considered official business.

The policy also bans South Koreans and non-status of forces agreement personnel affiliated with USFK from traveling to North Korea, making them subject to administrative action.

A U.S. executive order in June 2000 eased travel restrictions and legalized most nonmilitary transactions between Americans and North Koreans — although luxury goods exports are banned — according to the U.S. State Department Web site.

About 1.8 million people have taken the Mount Geumgang tour since November 1998, when Hyundai Asan began offering the tour by ship, Hyundai Asan spokesman Roh Ji-hwan said.

North Korea opened up a land route in 2003 but doesn’t allow any deviations from the tour route.

About 10,000 visitors were foreigners and most of those were Americans, Roh said.

“On our end, there is no problem for [U.S. citizens] to go on these tours,” he said.

South Korean soldiers are required to notify their country’s defense ministry of their plans, Roh said.

The new private car tours cost 340,000 won (about $358) per person. Weekends are already booked through May, Roh said.

Critics of the tour have pointed out that the North Korean government uses the hard currency gained from the tour packages to prop up its “military first” policy.

Geumgang, Korean for “diamond,” includes old Buddhist temples and has been spiritually revered by Koreans for centuries. Geumgang, about 160 miles from Seoul and 12 miles from the eastern Demilitarized Zone, is also known for its picturesque waterfalls and forests.

Visitors stay at a designated hotel, where they must leave their cars and use provided buses to tour the park.

The three-day tours are limited to 20 vehicles with up to 12 seats each, Hyundai Asan officials said.

The new tour won’t affect the U.N. Command Security Battalion in Panmunjom, USFK officials said. It will mean slightly more work for the U.N. Military Armistice Commission, which includes servicemembers from the United States and other armistice nations.

In an e-mail Wednesday, USFK spokesman Dave Palmer said the new private vehicle crossings to travel to the Mount Geumgang resort will be on top of the five to nine crossings a day now processed by the U.N. Military Armistice Commission team at Transportation Corridor East.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now