Minerals, railways draw China to North Korea

From the Asia Times:
By Michael Rank
11/18/2005

Chinese companies are venturing into North Korea, and both countries hope to reap the rewards. North Korea’s heavy industry is in a desperate state, but Pyongyang is hoping that Chinese investment will come to its rescue, while China sees the North as a convenient source of minerals, from coal to gold.

China’s increasing investment also means that North Korea is casting off its rigid juche, or self-sufficiency, policy and overcoming its deep historical suspicion of its giant northern neighbor.

Border trade in consumer items from televisions to beer has been booming since the 1990s, but now the focus is turning to the industrial sector. Deals are being reached on mines, railways and leasing a North Korean port to a Chinese company, but North Korea is notoriously secretive and few details have been published outside China. The deals include an agreement to “completely open” North Korea’s railways to a Hong Kong millionaire, as well as moves to revive ailing coal, iron and gold mines.

Tumen-Chongjin rail link rumored
Hong Kong businessman Qian Haomin is reported to have reached a US$3 billion deal with North Korea that also involves the Chinese Railways Ministry building a new rail link between the Chinese border city of Tumen and the North Korean port of Chongjin. The agreement marks an end to long-running tension between the Chinese and North Korean state railway authorities over North Korea’s retention of up to 2,000 Chinese goods wagons and reluctance to repay loans.

The Hong Kong news magazine Yazhou Zhoukan recently reported that these issues had been resolved and that Qian’s grandly named company Hong Kong International has agreed to provide the North Koreans with 500 to 1,000 freight wagons. Qian told the magazine that “after six months of effort, there are now hopes of solving the railway transport bottleneck between China and North Korea”, and this would help to integrate the economy of the entire northeast Asian region.

Qian’s ambitions are not limited to railways. Not only has he expressed interest in investing in a North Korean coal mine, but Yazhou Zhoukan also reported that he hopes to set up a special economic zone in the North Korean border city of Sinuiju. He has clearly not been deterred by the unhappy case of Yang Bin, a Dutch-Chinese multi-millionaire who was made head of a similar development zone in 2002. Before Yang could take up his post, he was arrested by the Chinese authorities for tax evasion and other economic crimes and jailed for 18 years.

Qian, aged 41, is originally from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong and moved to Hong Kong in 1993. He has been involved in North Korea since the early 1990s, and has apparently established a fruitful relationship with Prime Minister Pak Pong-ju. He has said that “to invest in North Korea has been my dream” because three of his uncles fought in the Korean war; one was killed and one was seriously wounded. The Hong Kong investor has signed a plastics, tire and battery recycling agreement with North Korea and has expressed interest in investing in the country’s largest anthracite coal mine, which now produces only 1 million tons a year, compared with 3 million tons at its peak.

Tonghua Steel looks North
Meanwhile, state-owned Tonghua Steel or Tonggang, based in the northeastern city of Tonghua, expects to sign a 7 billion yuan ($865 million), 50-year exploration rights deal with the Musan iron ore mine, said to be North Korea’s largest iron deposit. Tonggang, Jilin province’s largest steelmaker, hopes to receive 10 million tons of iron ore a year from Musan as part of its plans to increase steel production from a projected 5.5 million tons in 2007 to 10 million tons in 2010.

The planned deal reflects China’s immense and growing appetite for steel. Although the country already produces 30% of global output, it is heavily reliant on imports and is concerned about rising prices. A Jilin provincial trade official said importing iron ore from North Korea was attractive because of low transport costs, which would increase Tonghua’s competitiveness.

Tonggang officials say they expect the deal to be signed soon, and that of the 7 billion yuan (US$866.1 million) pledged, 2 billion yuan will be invested in transport and power lines. Company president An Fengcheng said agreement had already been reached with China Development Bank on 800 million yuan worth of soft loans and 1.6 billion yuan of hard loans, while “the remaining investment will come in in stages”.

Rajin deal to give China Sea of Japan access
China’s export boom is one of the great economic success stories of the past 25 years, but it is constrained by a lack of suitable ports. In particular, the country lacks a port on the Sea of Japan, but after attempted deals with Russia came to nought, the inland Chinese border city of Hunchun has reached an agreement for a 50-year lease with the nearby North Korean port of Rajin.

The ceding of Rajin, an ice-free port with a handling capacity of 3 million tons a year, will give access to the sea to inland areas of northeast China which, at present, must send freight long distances by rail to the port of Dalian on the Bohai gulf. The agreement also provides for the construction of a 5-10 square kilometer industrial zone and a 67 kilometer highway, and envisages that the Rajin area will become a processing zone for Chinese goods which will then be re-exported to southeast China.

A Hunchun economic official stressed that the leasing of the port is “a business deal and not a government deal”. The South China Morning Post reported from Hunchun that the man behind the deal is Fan Yingsheng, a property developer from Hunan province who put up half the initial capital investment of 60 million euros (US$70 million). The sum could not be denominated in dollars for political reasons.

The paper quoted the United Nations Development Program as saying this sum would only be enough to build the road to Rajin, and far more would be needed to rejuvenate the port. The deadline for final agreement is December 30, 2006, and it remains to be seen if a final deal will be reached in time.

An unusually frank North Korean trade official noted the possible pitfalls as well as the advantages of such deals. Kim Myong-chol, head of the Korean Council for the Promotion of Foreign Trade, said the deals would have to involve importing “highly advanced technology and equipment”, and added: “These agreements are not easy to put into actual practice and can run into many problems so far as funding and bilateral cooperation are concerned.”

“Because the amount of money involved in these cooperative projects is quite large and [North] Korea will be investing ports, roads, etc, there are rather great risks in such investment, and in addition because the domestic Korean economy and its policies, laws and regulations, etc, are unclear, many problems are likely to arise in carrying out these plans,” Kim told a Chinese website.

Coal and gold
Such concerns may have been in the mind of the president of China Minmetals Corp, Zhou Zhongshu, when he signed “an agreement on setting up a joint venture in the coal sector of the DPRK” [North Korea]. The deal was signed in October when Chinese deputy premier Wu Yi visited Pyongyang, and is said to be the first of its kind. North Korean Vice Minister for Foreign Trade Ri Ryong-nam urged the Chinese side to “provide advanced technology and set up a good model for other joint ventures and cooperation between the two countries”.

North Korea also has substantial gold deposits, and a Chinese company plans to invest in a “semi-paralyzed” North Korean gold mine and refine the metal at its base in Zhaoyuan in Shandong province. Guoda Gold Co Ltd reached a preliminary agreement last year with Sangnongsan gold mine, which is said to have gold deposits totaling at least 150 tons.

Guoda deputy manager Lin Deming said his company was attracted to North Korea because of low labor, energy and transport costs as well as the “highly favorable” investment terms offered, but gave no details. Chinese investment in North Korea is certainly increasing, but final agreement on a number of deals has not yet been reached, and political factors such as uncertainty over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program may well discourage Chinese companies from moving too fast.

Michael Rank is a former Reuters correspondent in China, now working in London.

Share