Sea change in Korean relations? Not at this beachside villa

GOSEONG, South Korea (Reuters) - On a cliff topped with pine trees and battered by icy waves, a stone villa stands at a cross-roads of Korean history, one that local officials hope can become a place of reconciliation.

The villa, built in the 1930s, was used as a coastal getaway before the outbreak of the Korean war in 1950 by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's grandfather and father who both spent holidays there with the families of Soviet commanders.

It's now in South Korea as a result of the war, a tourist attraction of Goseong County. Local officials proposed that Seoul invite a visiting North Korean Olympics delegation to pay a visit to the villa this month as a gesture of peace.

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The delegation of athletes, officials, musicians and cheer-leaders are attending South Korea's first winter Games in Pyeongchang, about 90 km (56 miles) away from the villa, in what Seoul hopes will be a breakthrough in improving relations.

"We were ready for them, but my understanding is that they don't plan to come," said Lee Kang-hoon, a businessman who heads a local association to promote Goseong as a destination for tourists and investors.

He said his group had asked South Korea's Unification Ministry to extend the invitation. A ministry spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter.

"We had hoped that if they travelled to South Korea by road, there would have been an opportunity to drop by briefly and help create a mood of reconciliation between the two Koreas," Lee said.

After the war ended in 1953, redrawn frontiers left Goseong and the villa about 10 km (seven miles) inside the border.

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Korean border town also a beachside villa
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Korean border town also a beachside villa
The Kumgangsancondo is seen across barbed wired fences in South Korean border village of Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Kim Ik-soo, the owner of a small supermarket is seen in front his shop in South Korean border village of Goseong , South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Kim Ik-soo, the owner of a small supermarket holds North Korean wine bottles in South Korean border village of Goseong , South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
A Souvenir shop at a condominium is seen empty in South Korean border village of Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Kim Ik-soo, the owner of a small supermarket shows North Korean liquors in South Korean border village of Goseong , South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
A Souvenir shop at a condominium is seen empty in South Korean border village of Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
The Kumgangsancondo is seen across barbed wired fences in South Korean border village of Goseong , South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Shops are seen shut down in the South Korean border village of Goseong, after South Korean tours to North Korean Mt. Kumgang had been suspended about a decade ago, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Kim Ik-soo, the owner of a small supermarket is seen in his shop in South Korean border village of Goseong , South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Kim Ik-soo, the owner of a small supermarket is seen in front his shop in South Korean border village of Goseong , South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Kim Ik-soo, the owner of a small supermarket shows North Korean liquors in South Korean border village of Goseong , South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
Kim Ik-soo, the owner of a small supermarket poses by a North Korean wine bottle in South Korean border village of Goseong , South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
A picture of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is seen showing him when he was a child as he was sitting on the steps at a stone villa where Kim Jong Un's father used to holiday with the children of Soviet commanders, in Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A beach view from the stone villa where former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, father of Kim Jong Un, used to holiday with the children of Soviet commanders, in Goseong, South Korea February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A plaque marks the point where former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il posed for a picture when he was a child as he was sitting on the steps at a stone villa where Kim Jong Un's father used to holiday with the children of Soviet commanders, in Goseong, South Korea February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Memorabilia items are seen inside the museum at he stone villa where former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il used to holiday with the children of Soviet commanders, in Goseong, South Korea February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A hotline sign offering rewards fore people who report North Korean spies, explosives or possible defections is seen at he stone villa where former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, father of Kim Jong Un, used to holiday with the children of Soviet commanders, in Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A journalist is seen at the steps at a stone villa where former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il used to holiday with the children of Soviet commanders, in Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A comparison pictures inside the museum show the stone villa, before and now where former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il used to holiday with the children of Soviet commanders, in Goseong, South Korea February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
An ocean view from the stone villa where former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, father of Kim Jong Un, used to holiday with the children of Soviet commanders, in Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. Picture taken February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A Cold War era anti-tank barricade is seen on a highway near the border with North Korea in Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/ Jorge Silva
A man poses with the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics mascots Soohorang and Bandabi at the beach in Goseong, South Korea, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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The building's links to Kim Il Sung, communist founding father of the North Korean state and Kim Jong Un's grandfather, makes it a potent political landmark -- perhaps too potent.

Seoul and Pyongyang both claim sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula, and the Kim family are afforded godlike reverence by the North Korean state, so a visit could be construed as granting a kind of political pilgrimage.

Allowing the visit would have been a "PR disaster" for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said Christopher Green, senior advisor on Korean affairs for the International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy group for avoiding conflict.

"The Moon administration is already treading a fine line between engagement and what a large and vocal segment of the population regards as appeasement," said Green.

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Koreas tension, Kaesong North Korea and Demilitarized Zone
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SEASIDE ATTRACTION

The villa was built in 1938 by a German architect who used it as a chapel and retreat for foreign missionaries. Under North Korean control, it became a holiday home for officials of the ruling Worker's Party and their Soviet comrades.

Soviets were stationed in North Korea in the years leading up the outbreak of war.

Now, the partially restored villa hosts an exhibition dedicated to hopes of a reunified Korea.

A photo in the exhibition shows the North Korean leader's father, Kim Jong Il, as a bare-footed six-year-old wearing shorts and sitting on the villa's steps next to a Soviet Army commander's son. Beside them, Kim Kyong Hui, the once-powerful aunt of current leader Kim Jong Un, stares at the camera.

Even if Seoul had allowed the invitation, it may have prompted an awkward response from the North Korean side.

"A place where Kim Il Sung lived is in principle an important commemorative site for North Korea," Green said.

"But the residence has not been cared for in anything like the reverential manner of Kim Il Sung's putative birthplace in Pyongyang, for example. It is kept in the manner of a provincial seaside tourist attraction".

(Editing by Mark Bendeich)

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