JEJU, South Korea, March 28 (UPI) -- Some 1,200 travel agents worldwide came to South Korea's southern island of Jeju this week, as the country hopes to make the isle a foothold of peace in Northeast Asia.
The meeting, organized by the American Society of Travel Agents, the world's biggest advocate group for travel agents, was focused on tourist destinations on the Korean peninsula, particularly on this resort island designated by the South Korean government as a hub of world peace.
"Tourism is the best way to promote world peace. As a tourist destination, Jeju island will serve as the center for peace in Northeast Asia," Jeju Governor Kim Tae-hwan said in an address. "Jeju is an island of world peace and reconciliation," he told the participants from 41 countries.
ASTA President and Chief Executive Officer Cheryl Hudak said it was the first year for the group to hold its International Destination Expo in Asia. "Jeju is the perfect location for this event as research forecasts indicate Asia is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations," she said at the meeting co-sponsored by state-run Korea Tourism Organization.
Hudak and other travel agents vowed to help promote peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, which remains technically in a state of war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended without a peace treaty. Their border is the world's last Cold War flashpoint, with nearly 2 million troops on both sides.
After the five-day meeting, some of the participants plan to travel later this week to North Korea's mountain resort of Kumgang, just north of the heavily fortified border. The North has opened the sealed-off mountain resort to South Korean tourists since 1998 as a symbol of cross-border rapprochement.
The travel agents' gathering comes at a time when Jeju island is struggling to craft its image as a hub of world peace, hosting a series of summit meetings and international security forums, such as the first-ever defense ministers' meeting between the two Koreas and a "Korean peace festival" joined by some 200 North Koreans.
Later this week Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso will arrive on the island to meet his South Korean counterpart, Song Min-soon, to discuss ways to repair frayed bilateral ties over history and territorial rows.
Seoul-Tokyo ties have been at their lowest ebb since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stirred anger by saying there was no evidence that Tokyo had coerced Asian women into sex slavery during World War II. During the talks March 31 to April 1, Aso and Lee will also discuss North Korea's nuclear disarmament and other security issues, according to Seoul's Foreign Ministry.
Jeju has also invited North Korea's youth football squad to use the southern island for a weeks-long training session, saying it is part of an effort to boost peace and the inter-Korean sports relationship.
When the North Korean players arrived at a Jeju airport last week, citizens waved "unification flags" that feature a silhouette of the peninsula, shouting: "Glad to meet you!"
It was the first time that North Korean athletes visited the South for training. It is also the first time for a North Korean sports team to come to the South since the North took part in an East Asian football competition in August 2005.
The South Korean government will spend about $250,000 to help the North Korean players, in a show of thawing ties between the two Koreas after a recent deal on ending Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has designated Jeju as the hub of world peace in hopes that it would boost his reconciliation policy toward the North. "We hope the image of Jeju as a symbolic place for promoting and spreading peace in the region will be greatly enhanced by this designation," he said.
Jeju-based civic groups have also joined the government's peace campaign, shipping 1,000 tons of subtropical fruits to the North annually since 2002.