Archive for June, 2005

Pastor aims to send rabbits to feed North Koreans

Wednesday, June 29th, 2005


A South Korean pastor is aiming to cut into North Korea’s severe food shortage by sending the reclusive state 1.2 million rabbits to eat.

Cho Soon-tae from the Evangelical Movement for National Unification said rabbits are tasty, resilient and reproduce, well, like rabbits, which would make them an ideal food source for North Korea.

With the help of seven pastors from leading South Korean churches, Cho secured more than $1 million to buy rabbits at a little under $1 each in China and transport them to North Korea.

“They will be delivered to the North in August by train from China,” Cho said by telephone.

Cho said he had asked permission from South Korean authorities to ship the rabbits and was in talks with officials from the North seeking their permission.

The U.N. World Food Programme has said North Korea is in the midst of a severe food shortage that may quickly grow worse as food stocks and international aid dry up. Many of the country’s 22 million people rely on food aid.

Cho said he thought about how he could help alleviate food shortages in the North after a visit to a kindergarten there that was sparsely attended because of malnutrition among the students.

If all goes well, Cho is looking to send more rabbit aid.


Tourism with a North Korean twist

Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

Asia Times
Andrei Lankov

This month, Hyundai Asan Corp stated that the number of tourists to have visited the Kumgang Mountain Tourist Project in North Korea since it began operations in 1998 had finally reached one million. This is seen as a reason for some major celebration – as any sufficiently round figure would.

However, in January 1999 Hyundai Asan leaders assured that by the end of 2004, there would have been an accumulative 4.9 million visits to the North. The actual figure was about 900,000. At the same time, Hyundai Asan managers predicted that in 2004 alone some 1.2 million tourists would visit the project. Yet the actual number of visits that year was 274,000.

Does this mean the Kumgang project is a failure? Not quite, since it remains in operation – unlike many other much-trumpeted intra-Korean projects. But it is kept afloat only due to persistent political and financial support from the South Korean government (or, in other words, due to the deepness of the pockets of South Korean taxpayers). Within its short history, the project has been on the verge of bankruptcy, and has even seen its chief executive officer driven to suicide.

The project was conceived in 1989, when Chung Ju-yung, the founder of Hyundai Group, spent a week in North Korea negotiating with the Pyongyang leaders, including president Kim Il-sung himself. The chairman of Korea’s largest industrial conglomerate was born in what is now North Korea, and in last years of his long and eventful life he demonstrated a sentimental attachment to his native land, being the most enthusiastic proponent of South Korean investment in the North.

One of the schemes briefly discussed during his 1989 visit was the idea of setting up a large tourist park in North Korea, to be used by South Korean tourists. The park was to be located in the Kumgang (“Diamond”) mountains, which for centuries have been seen in Korean culture as an embodiment of scenic beauty. The mountains conveniently lay near the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, the border between the two Korean states.

However, it took a decade and some major political changes to start the project moving. By the mid-1990s, Seoul realized that the collapse of North Korea was both unlikely and undesirable, since a German-style unification would be prohibitively costly. Hence, investment to the North and all kinds of direct and indirect aid came to be seen as a necessity by the new left-leaning administration of president Kim Dae-jung, who was elected in 1997.

That meant Chung Ju-yung’s plans received government support. He moved ahead with his characteristic energy, and in November 1998, the Kumgang project began to operate.

The idea was simple. The North Koreans agreed to create a sort of ghetto for South Korean visitors. A part of the Kumgang mountains was fenced off, with all the local population moved away. The South Korean tourists took a cruise ship to the area. The ship moored in a local harbor while the visitors ventured out for mountain walks and sight-seeing. Typically, a tour lasted for four days and three nights, and tourists lived onboard the cruise ship, which doubled as a floating hotel.

This clever scheme solved the problem of information flow, which was seen by Pyongyang as the major obstacle in its interactions with the South. North Korean commoners are supposed to believe that their South Korean brethren suffer under the cruel yoke of US imperialists. Understandably, their government does not want them to know that the per capita gross national project (GNP) in South Korea is 20 to 30 times higher than in the North. The sight of well-dressed South Korean crowds would be damaging for public morale and even political stability, but in the tourist scheme the rich southerners could be kept out of sight of average North Koreans, being accompanied only by a handful of carefully selected minders.

The South Korean visitors also had to behave themselves. They were warned that they could not criticize the North Korean system and its leaders, and that, in general, talking politics with North Korean personnel was not advisable. Transgressions could be punished.

In June 1999, Min Yong-mi, a 35-year-old housewife from Seoul, was engaged in talks with a North Korean minder. She told him a few words about South Korean prosperity and said something to the effect that North Korean defectors in the South were doing well. The reaction was swift: the talkative lady was arrested and spent one week in detention, accused of espionage. Of course she was not put into a real prison, but the ordeal was tough enough to undermine her health. There are good reasons to suspect that the entire affair was a deliberate provocation: the North Korean authorities were waited for something like this to happen to demonstrate that no quasi-political activities would be tolerated. They wanted to make an example of Min, and they generally succeeded: since then, tourists have become far more cautious.

Moneywise, the North Koreans were doing very well, too. The Hyundai Group built all the necessary infrastructure (presumably including the fences to keep the South Korean visitors under control), and also paid US$12 million every month as a fee for the use of the area. Some additional income was earned by North Korea through the sale of grossly overpriced local products and souvenirs.

Initially these conditions were accepted, not only because Chung Ju-yung was sentimental (and over-optimistic) about investment to North Korea, but also because a large tourist flow was expected. According to the above-cited sanguine estimates of 1999, by 2003 the numbers were supposed to reach the level of one million visitors per year – and then exceed them.

However, the plan did not work out as intended. Contrary to initial expectations, South Koreans were not too eager to spend their short vacations behind barbed wire. The early enthusiasm soon wore out, and from 2,000 the numbers of tourists began to decline. The trips were not cheap: the cost in 1998-99 was about 650,000 to 750,000 won (some $500-600 at the current rate). South Koreans soon discovered that for a similar amount of money they could visit China or even some parts of Southeast Asia, where apart from the scenery they would have some exposure to foreign cultures and would not feel under constant control and supervision.

The reformist drive of the Seoul government also contributed to the project’s mounting problems. Until early 2001, other subsidiaries of the mighty Hyundai Group were helping Hyundai Merchandise Marine, which initially operated the Kumgang Project. But as a result of government-initiated reforms of chaebol (conglomerates), the Hyundai Group was disbanded, after which independent companies of the former chaebol were not too eager to keep afloat a struggling project. In April 2001, Hyundai halved the number of trips to Kumgang and stated that the project would be discontinued due to the great loss of money.

Trouble in paradise
The government, however, could not allow this to happen; by that time the project had acquired huge symbolic importance. By 2001, the Kumgang project had become by far the largest intra-Korean economic operation, and the Kim Dae-jung administration, bent on keeping its “sunshine” engagement policy going, could not afford to lose the major symbol of such policy.

A rescue package saved the project from demise. The government-owned Korea National Tourist Organization was ordered to take part in the project and pay some of the overdue bills. The government also occasionally paid for generous discounts for many groups of people. For nine months in 2002, for example, the government paid 70% of the traveling expenses for elementary, middle and high school students, and 60% as well as all costs for students and teachers living in rural areas.

The North Koreans also demonstrated uncharacteristic flexibility when in 2001 they reluctantly agreed to accept payments depending on the number of tourists and the length of their stay, instead of the earlier fixed fee. Currently, these payments amount to $50 per tourist with a standard package of two nights, and $25 for a tourist who stays only one night.

Thus, the project survived the first crisis – only to be struck by a new one. This time, the reasons were political: the opposition uncovered evidence which showed that in order to secure Pyongyang’s agreement to participate in the North-South summit of June 2000, Seoul had secretly transferred $500 million to North Korea.

It was only logical that this clandestine money transfer was conducted with the involvement of Hyundai Asan. First, the survival of the corporation would be impossible without government involvement, and this meant its leaders could hardly say “no” when asked by the authorities to “help” in some delicate affair. Second, being the largest South Korean operation in North Korea, Hyundai Asan had both vested interests in intra-Korean detente and experience in dealing with money transfers of such kinds (there are some good reasons to suspect that the ill-fated “summit fees” were not the only clandestine money transfer to Pyongyang).

The discovery of the “summit bribe” led to a political scandal. An investigation ensued, and the then-head of Hyundai Asan, Chiung Mong-hun, the 55-year-old son of the conglomerate’s founder, found himself in the center of the scandal. He could not handle the stress. Amid mounting political pressures, he committed suicide by throwing himself out of his headquarters’ window on August 4, 2003.

Yet once again the Kumgang project survived the blow. In May of this year, Hyundai Asan stated it would probably make a profit in 2005. If that happens it will be the first time a profit has been recorded in the company’s history – of course, we are talking about ongoing costs and revenues, without considering the estimated $470 million that has been invested in the project so far. Nonetheless, it is clear that the situation has improved over the past few years, even if the actual performance would not be considered satisfactory in a less politically motivated project.

The improvement was brought about by the opening of a land route in 2003 that replaced the earlier cruises. Now, South Korean tourists board buses near the checkpoint and then travel to hotels operated by Hyundai Asan in the same Kumgang area. Currently, two hotels are operational, but the number will probably increase. The new tours can be shorter, with two nights being the norm. The new scheme also cuts down prices considerably, making the trip somewhat more attractive at 300,000 to 400,000 won (roughly, $350-$400) per person.

The basics of the tour remain unchanged, however: South Koreans are placed in a sort of ghetto, behind high fences carefully guarded by sentries. The tourists can shop for North Korean souvenirs, which are sold at exorbitant prices. It seems ant liquor and snake wine (with a real dead snake floating inside the bottle) are especially popular among males – both are believed to be good for virility. An acrobatics show and a hot spring are additional pleasures available for visitors – if they are willing to pay. A visit to the hot spring, for example, costs some $30, or about half of the average annual salary in North Korea.

Outside their hotels, tourists are constantly supervised by their North Korean guides, mostly young girls who are obviously selected for their good looks and, presumably, political reliability. There are some males as well, who dress in plain clothes. All guides are equipped with their Kim Il-sung badges, and are ever ready to deliver a well-rehearsed eulogy to the Great Leader and his son and successor, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, in suitably exalted tones.

Combined with large iconic pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on major crossroads and eulogies to their greatness carved in mountain rock, this creates a very bizarre picture of time travel: for one who wants to experience the feelings of visitors to Mao Zedong’s China in the early 1970s or Stalin’s Russia in the late 1930s, the place is worth a visit. Admittedly, not many foreigners rush to see the Stalinesque environment, long extinct elsewhere: even though formalities are kept at a bare minimum, only 0.5% of all visitors are foreign citizens.

Looking at the North Koreans present on the scene, one cannot help but wonder what is actually happening inside the heads of these highly privileged people, more often than not agents of the secret police or scions of well-connected families. The crowds of well-dressed, well-fed South Koreans contradict the official picture of the South as an impoverished domain of US imperialists and Japanese neo-colonialists. The selected few probably don’t ask questions, but they arrive at some conclusions no doubt.

However, this impact should not be overestimated. After all, the project was conceived in a way that allowed the impact of the South Korean visitors to be kept as low as possible. The number of North Koreans allowed to see these visitors is intentionally kept very low. Until recently, Pyongyang did not allow the Kumgang project to employ local personnel, and only recently have North Korean waitresses and cooks appeared at some restaurants and in one of the hotels. Their attitude vividly reminds this writer of the privileged Intourist hotel in Leningrad, which had the same air of unintended rudeness in dealing with its foreign guests, and great superiority in interacting with Soviet citizens. Nonetheless, at the Kumgang project, the presence of some 400 North Korean employees (excluding the guides and plain-clothed minders) is significant. However, most of the semi-skilled personnel are ethnic Koreans recruited from China – they agree to work for very low wages.

How will historians see the Kumgang project and the much-trumpeted “intra-Korean cooperation” in general? As a selfish attempt by affluent South Koreans to prolong the existence of a brutal dictatorship in order to save themselves from the troublesome necessity of paying for North Korea’s transformation? Or as an important contribution toward this transformation, a way to slightly open the closed doors of North Korean society and teach its inhabitants a thing or two about the modern economy and modern world? Perhaps they will see it as a way to support the expensive habits of the North Korean elite, or a way to ameliorate suffering of the commoners. We know not, but one thing is clear: business with North Korea is, first and foremost, a political affair, and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.


Kaesong Firms Required to Buy NK Insurance

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

Korea Times
Na Jeong-ju

South Korean companies setting up operations in the Kaesong industrial complex face difficulties due to a North Korean obligation that they must purchase insurance policies from a North Korean state-run firm.

North Korea demands that South Korean firms have insurance against accidents with a North Korean state-run firm, but they question whether it is financially stable enough to cover all possible accidents.

According to related regulations set up by North Korea last November, South Korean firms in the Kaesong industrial complex must buy insurance policies from North Korean firms. If South Korean companies didn’t follow the rule, they had to pay $10,000 in fines.

South Korean firms regard this rule as unfair.

“We have to buy insurance from a North Korean company despite its inability to cover possible accidents,’’ said an official of a company in the Kaesong complex.

“We have asked the South Korean government to correct this problem because we don’t trust North Korean companies.’’

According to sources, the Unification Ministry, the Financial Supervisory Commission and the Korea Non-Life Insurance Association (KNIA) will hold a meeting today to discuss the matter. The South Korean government has been aware of the problem faced by South Korean companies, but it has delayed notifying the issue to North Korea, the sources said.

“South Korea should have a consultation with North Korea to address insurance matters,’’ a source said. “North Korea may be active in correcting the problem, but it may demand something in return.’’

Currently, a total of 15 South Korean companies have signed contracts with Hyundai Asan, a North Korean business arm of Hyundai Group, to set up a factory in the Kaesong complex. Hyundai Asan has the exclusive rights to develop the Mt. Kumgang tourism complex and the Kaesong complex under agreements signed in 2000.

“South Korean companies have asked the government to check the financial status of the North Korean insurance firm, but they have received no answer,’’ a KNIA official said. “In case of accidents, insurance firms must conduct investigations and check the financial status of policyholders. In this sense, we believe North Korean insurance companies are not capable.’’

North Korea has only one insurance company run by the government, but South Korean companies have little information about it.