Pyongyang’s first Western law firm

First foreign practice is a lure to investors : Law firm allowed in Pyongyang
Associated Press (via Herald Tribune)
Andrew Salmon

North Korea has allowed the establishment of the country’s first private law firm as part of its efforts to attract international investors, according to a principal in the new venture.

Hay, Kalb & Associates opened its office on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang on Aug. 15, according to Michael Hay, who owns the firm with a North Korean partner.

The establishment of a partly foreign-owned law firm in North Korea is a rare instance where the Communist state is more open than its capitalist neighbor to the south.

South Korea remains closed to all foreign legal entities.

“The North Koreans recognize that foreign investors need a comfort level in the legal environment,” Hay, a British lawyer turned business consultant, told foreign journalists recently.

“Many foreign companies think it’s a dirt-poor country legally. It’s not. They are really revising laws.”

So far, there has been no official confirmation of the new firm by the North Korean government.

The firm has a dozen local lawyers and plans to focus on foreign companies seeking opportunities in North Korea.

“We are looking at two main areas,” Hay said. “The legal area for foreign

investors, and transparent accounting, bookkeeping and repatriation of funds.”

Foreign companies seeking to do business in North Korea have previously had to rely on legal advisers provided by the government, as no private law firms exist.

Hay said the North Korean authorities hoped that the establishment of Hay, Kalb and Associates would be a stage in the arrival of a completely foreign-owned, international blue chip law firm in Pyongyang.

Hay said international law firms that have flirted with entering North Korea have pulled back in recent years because of the recurrent crisis over the country’s capability to produce nuclear weapons.

Foreign lawyers working in South Korea were skeptical of the new firms prospects. “This sounds like a great romantic adventure,” said Brendon Carr, an American lawyer working for Seoul’s Aurora law firm.

Hay said, however, that business activity in the North was on the rise.

“Last time I was up there, I counted over 1,200 vendor stalls in Pyongyang, using the local currency, not dollars,” Hay said. “And reforms aren’t over; there are more coming.”

He cautioned, however, that reform had its detractors: “Young Turks are not always popular.”

Other foreign visitors have noted changes since economic reforms announced by North Korea in 2002.

“You see a lot of Chinese investment now, and Chinese are there for profits,” said Jean Jacques Grauher, Secretary General of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea, which maintains offices in Seoul and Pyongyang. “There is more money circulating now, and there is a clear law on repatriation of funds,” he said.

The most promising business areas for foreign investors are agriculture, infrastructure development and power generation, Grauher said.

He noted, however, that major foreign investment is unlikely until North Korea is approved to receive financial assistance from international bodies such as the Asia Development Bank.

Areas where North Korea has core skills are animation and software, as well as textiles, Grauher said.

South Korea, Asia’s third-largest economy, maintains a legal market that is closed to foreign firms. Foreign lawyers working for South Korean law firms are titled “legal consultants.”

UK lawyer opens firm in Pyongyang

Betting on the further liberalisation of North Korea’s economy, a UK lawyer is opening a law firm in Pyongyang to advise investors doing business there.
Hay, Kalb Associates, which was set up by Mike Hay and the North Korean government, started business in August.

The firm offers legal advice, accounting services and help with repatriating funds from the North.

“[The North Korea government] realises they need a comfort level on the part of foreign investors,” Mr Hay said.


North Korea is currently locked in dispute with its neighbours and the US over its nuclear programme.

Investors there have to wade through red tape, put up with power cuts and surveillance, amid widespread criticism of North Korea’s human rights record.

Some observers also wonder if money really can be made there.

But two years ago, the country did introduce economic reforms, including price and wage liberalisation.

Mr Hay said there are more reforms to come and that he is already advising a Western European firm though he declined to give its name. He added that there were rewards for those prepared to take the risk.

Areas of interest include tourism, mineral extraction and energy software.

Hay, Kalb Associates employs about 12 North Korean lawyers, all graduates of the Kim Il-sung University.

The company’s offices will be located in Kim Il-sung square in the central government complex.

Mr Hay, whose contacts with the North date back to 1998, said the level of legal expertise in the country is high.

“People think it’s a dirt track country in terms of law but it’s not,” he told foreign correspondents in Seoul.


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