Seoul may face fiscal challenge to future DPRK aid

From Yonhap:

By Lee Dong-min
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Yonhap) — South Korea is fiscally able to handle its economic aid to North Korea, but the situation may change in the future when it will be required to spend more on its social welfare system, a senior official at Moody’s suggested Monday.

Speaking at a symposium by the Institute for Corean-American Studies (ICAS), Thomas Byrne, vice president of the international credit rating agency, said he does agree that North Korea is headed to meaningful economic reforms.

South Korea is one of three nations whose geopolitical risks are considered in judging its credit rating. Israel and Taiwan are the others.

Divided since the end of the three-year Korean War in 1953, the Korean Peninsula remains tense and volatile as Pyongyang seeks nuclear weapons it claims it needs as a deterrent against possible U.S. attack.

According to Byrne, the situation keeps South Korea one notch below the credit rating it normally deserves.

In trying to ease the tension, Seoul has been trying to engage Pyongyang by providing food and other types of economic assistance. A recent project involves an industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong where South Korea’s smaller firms have built manufacturing plants to use North Korea’s cheap labor force to make their products more price-competitive.

Byrne said Moody’s assesses the fiscal implications of South Korea helping to keep North Korea’s debilitated economy afloat.

“In fact, the North Korean economy is more unstable now,” he said, citing hyperinflation, backfired currency reform efforts and minuscule international trade hovering at US$3 billion a year.

Seoul, along with Beijing, is a major donor to Pyongyang, but it may be pressured to think otherwise, according to the Moody’s official.

With its aging society and expected large expenditures in social welfare and health care, South Korea will need a larger domestic budget, he said.

“Domestic social welfare demands would compete with sunshine/co-prosperity policy if the latter continues to increase, or increase sharply in the future,” said Byrne.

Despite North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s visits to China that many saw as his study of Beijing’s economic reform path, the Moody’s official didn’t see any significant signs.

“I don’t see any internally generated reform process,” he said. “North Koreans aren’t anywhere near the positions of embarking on policies of China… or Vietnam.”

Kaesong is, at least for now, more important for South Korea than North Korea and not enough to show that Pyongyang is changing, he said, “If there were five other Kaesongs in North Korea, then it may mean something to North Korea… then, maybe North Korea is changing,” Byrne said.

The tension over North Korea’s nuclear problem intensified with U.S. accusations that Pyongyang was counterfeiting American currency and dealing in contraband.

In September, the U.S. Treasury designated Macau’s Banco Delta Asia (BDA) a primary money laundering entity working for North Korea, saying the bank was abetting Pyongyang’s illicit financial activities.

Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant secretary of treasury, said there is “very little question” that North Korea was involved in counterfeiting U.S. dollars, mostly $100 notes commonly called “supernotes.”

“Every seizure of these notes has been linked to each other… all of them have involved distribution by North Korean diplomats,” he told the ICAS symposium.

He again denied that the action against BDA was in any way meant to affect the nuclear negotiations with North Korea.

“This is a new approach to U.S. national security,” Glaser said, emphasizing that it was under new laws and newly created offices that steps like those against BDA were coordinated.

Wendy Cutler, assistant U.S. trade representative, focused on upcoming free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with South Korea that she hopes will have far-reaching effects beyond the two nations.

“This agreement will help underscore U.S. commitment to engage the Asian region … the U.S. is committed to developing robust trade relationships in Asia,” she told the symposium.

Seoul and Washington will hold their first formal FTA talks next month in Washington and hope to come up with a final draft by end of this year.

Cutler, who heads the U.S. side in the negotiations, noted that FTAs require political decisions that defy strong domestic opposition.

FTA opponents in South Korea plan to come to Washington to protest the launch of the negotiations, alarming law enforcement officials of both countries.

Cutler said despite press reports of such opposition, polls indicate general support.

“It’s important to know that the Roh (Moo-hyun) administration and the majority of the Korean population and business community support the FTA,” she said.

A U.S. trade official, reacting to reports of protesters coming to Washington, cited the same polls.

“You need to keep in mind that based on polls in Korea, overall sentiment in Korea is strong support for the FTA,” the official said.


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