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North Korean soldier kills South Korean tourist

A North Korean soldier fatally shot a South Korean tourist Friday at a mountain resort in the communist nation, prompting the South to suspend the high-profile tourism program just as its new president sought to rekindle strained ties between the divided countries.

The unprecedented shooting of the 53-year-old woman at the Diamond Mountain resort - one of the few areas in the reclusive country open to foreigners - was publicized hours after new President Lee Myung-bak delivered a nationwide address calling for restored contacts between the two Koreas, which have been on hold since he took office in February.

The woman left her hotel around 4:30 a.m. (1930 GMT Thursday) to walk along the beach at the resort, but crossed deep into a fenced-off military area, according to a North Korean account of the shooting given to the South Korean company that operates the resort, Hyundai Asan.

A North Korean soldier spotted the 53-year-old, identified as Park Wang-ja, about a half mile (1 kilometer) inside the fence and told her to halt. But Park ran away and the soldier gave chase, firing one warning shot before shooting her dead around 5a.m. Friday (2000 GMT Thursday), the North said.

"We regret that our tourist was killed," South Korea's Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyeon said, adding that Seoul "will take appropriate corresponding measures" pending the results of the probe.

Park was shot twice from behind, said Cho Yong-seok, an official at the hospital in the South Korean city of Sokcho where her body was taken. One bullet hit her in the chest, causing her death, and another shot struck her left hip, he said.

Kim said South Korea would suspend future Diamond Mountain tours until it completes an investigation. Some 1,200 tourists currently at the resort will complete their tours as scheduled if they choose to do so, with some leaving as late as Sunday, Hyundai Asan said.

The resort is in a heavily militarized area near the tense border between the Koreas, the world's last Cold War frontier. On the road to the resort, mobile rocket launchers dot the hillsides and the coast has been home to a major North Korean naval base.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a cease-fire. However, they have made strides in reconciliation since the first-ever summit in 2000 between their leaders.

North Korea informed Hyundai Asan about the shooting around 11:30 a.m. (0230 GMT), more than six hours after the incident. There has not yet been any communication from the North Korean government to Seoul officials about the death.

The resort on the peninsula's eastern coast, which opened in 1998, is one of the most prominent projects between the two Koreas.

Hyundai Asan operates the resort as a tourist enclave inside the communist North, complete with South Korean convenience stores and a duty-free shop selling luxury goods. The area is one of two North Korean tourist programs run by the company, which are the only sites that offer relatively free access to visitors to the North.

There were no plans to suspend a separate tour program offering day trips to the North's border city of Kaesong due to the shooting.

About 1.9 million visitors, mostly South Koreans, have visited Diamond Mountain, including some 190,000 people this year, according to the Unification Ministry.

Tourists at the resort are usually only allowed to wander freely in specified areas and green fences separate the zone from the rest of the country. For hiking trips on the mountain, tour groups are taken by bus to trails lined by North Korean monitors.

Relations have chilled since South Korean President Lee took office with a tougher policy toward North Korea.

However, Lee proposed Friday a resumption of dialogue between the Koreas and said he would respect earlier agreements from North-South summits, a softening of his earlier stance.

"Full dialogue between the two Koreas must resume," Lee told the opening session of parliament. "The South Korean government is willing to engage in serious consultations on how to implement" the summit deals and other previous agreements between the two sides, he said.

Lee said that he is "ready to cooperate in efforts to help relieve the food shortage in the North as well as alleviate the pain of the North Korean people."

Lee was briefed on the tourist's death right before he departed for the National Assembly speech, his office said, but did not mention it in his comments.

International agencies have warned that North Korea is facing its worst food shortages in years due to severe floods last year. The shortages were aggravated by a lack of assistance from South Korea amid stalled relations. Lee's predecessors regularly sent food aid.

The South Korean president also urged North Korea to resolve humanitarian issues such as resuming reunions of families separated between the Koreas, and allowing hundreds of South Korean prisoners of war and civilians believed to be held in North Korea to return home.

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