North Korea’s golden path to security

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner
1/18/2007

While the West and Japan have targeted North Korea’s overseas bank accounts to curtail its weapons program, Pyongyang has recently turned to more ingenious ways of maintaining its international businesses through substantial exports of gold, silver and other valuable metals.

Pyongyang has apparently found a willing conduit to global buyers through its many business connections in Thailand, which has recently emerged as the isolated state’s third-largest trading partner after China and South Korea. According to official Thai Customs Department statistics, North Korea shipped 500 kilograms of gold worth 398 million baht (US$11 million) to Thailand last April.

The following month, another 800kg of gold worth 635 million baht landed in Thailand courtesy of North Korea. Also, in June, 10 tons of silver worth 148 million baht was sent from North Korea to Thailand, followed by 12 tons worth 166 million baht last October.

In sum, North Korea exported 1.35 billion baht – or nearly $40 million – worth of precious metals to Thailand last year.

That is a substantial figure for North Korea, a country with an estimated gross domestic product of about $22 billion and whose total exports amounted to just over $1 billion, according to official statistics. Thailand is bound by the international sanctions imposed last October against North Korea by the United Nations in response to Pyongyang’s exploding an atomic bomb.

According to official Thai statistics, the gold and first consignment of silver were shipped to Thailand before the UN sanctions were imposed. But there is nothing illegal in North Korea exporting precious metals, unless, of course, the income from the sale can be tied directly to the country’s controversial weapons programs, which anyway would be extremely hard to prove.

Untapped riches
North Korea’s gold and silver mines remain largely untapped. According to Tse Pui-kwan, a Chinese-American chemist who joined the US Bureau of Mines in 1990, North Korea has significant deposits of copper, gold, graphite, iron, lead, magnesite, tungsten and zinc. When the Cold War ended and North Korea lost large amounts of foreign aid from both the Soviet Union and China, its mining industry fell into disrepair and extraction activities sharply declined.

But with new foreign cooperation, production has resumed, which the recent exports to Thailand clearly demonstrate. North Korea’s main gold mine is in Unsan county in North Pyongan province, about 150 kilometers north of Pyongyang. It was originally opened by a US firm in 1896, when Korea was still an independent and unified kingdom, and was later taken over by a Japanese company when the peninsula became a colony ruled by Tokyo in 1910.

Nearly a century later, consultants from Clough Engineering of Australia in 2001 inspected the same mine under the sponsorship of the United Nations Office for Project Services. They estimated that Unsan held 1,000 tons of gold reserves, which if true would make it one of the world’s major gold mines. Silver is also mined in the same area, while iron ore and magnesite are found in North and South Hamgyong provinces in the northeast.

North Korea’s extraction techniques are sometimes controversial. According to witnesses interviewed by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea for its 2003 report “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps”, there is a gold-mining labor camp near Danchun in South Hamgyong province, where thousands of prisoners are being held and forced to work under abysmal conditions.

In that same report, several witnesses claimed that “some of the mine shafts dated back to the early days of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s. Accessing the veins of minable gold required descending and, later, ascending a wooden staircase 500 meters in length, using gas lanterns for light. Deaths from mining accidents were a daily occurrence, including multiple deaths from the partial collapse of mine shafts.”

The first attempt to modernize North Korea’s gold-mining industry was made by an Italian financier and former Foreign Ministry official, Carlo Baeli, who traveled to the country in the early 1990s and claims to be the first Westerner to do business with Pyongyang since the Korean War. He later wrote a book called Kim Jong-il and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, which was published in Pyongyang in 1990, obviously with official permission as it was printed by the state-owned Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Apart from painting a flattering portrait of the North Korean leader, the book describes Baeli’s first trip to Pyongyang in 1990, of which he wrote, “We were interested in investing in the mining industry, mainly in the extraction of gold and granite.” Baeli later signed a contract for a loan of $118 million to purchase mining equipment, and the goal was to resurrect no fewer than six gold mines across North Korea. The money was to be provided by international banks such as Midland Bank and the Naples International Bank. He also arranged for the mining equipment to be shipped from Italy.

But heavy flooding in the mid-1990s damaged both the equipment and the mines and, according to a 2006 report in Forbes magazine, Baeli today works as an adviser to the Pyongyang government at a tire-recycling plant. The car and truck tires are imported from Japan, get ground into granulate in North Korea, and are sold to China for road resurfacing, car mats and shoe soles. A lucrative business, perhaps, but not quite the golden dream Baeli had when he first arrived in Pyongyang nearly 17 years ago.

Another unusual partner in North Korea’s gold trade may have been the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In August 2001, the right-wing South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo published a story claiming that Marcos in September 1970 had deposited 940 tons of gold bars at a Swiss bank in the name of the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung. The report came from a former Marcos aide, and Munhwa Ilbo carried a copy of the bank-account certificate on its front page. The alleged gold bars were part of what a Japanese army general had looted from Asia during World War II, Munhwa Ilbo claimed.

That report was never independently confirmed, but it nevertheless reflects the mystique and speculation that still surround North Korea’s gold industry – and how little the outside world actually knows about it.

Financial pressures
When the US took action against Banco Delta Asia in Macau in September 2005, labeling it a “primary money-laundering concern” for North Korean funds, very little evidence to substantiate the charges was ever produced. North Korea lost $24 million when the accounts it held with the bank in the name of a front company, Zokwang Trading, were frozen. Zokwang, which had been operating in Macau for decades, also closed its office and relocated to Zhuhai province across the border in China proper.

The action against Banco Delta Asia, a privately owned bank that the Macau government later had to prop up to prevent it from collapsing, was the second move against North Korea’s assets abroad. In a much less publicized action, North Korea’s only bank located in a foreign country – the Golden Star Bank in Vienna – was forced to suspend its operations in June 2004. The Golden Star was 100% owned by the Korea Daesong Bank, a state enterprise headquartered in Pyongyang, and was allowed to set up a branch in the Austrian capital in 1982.

For more than two decades, Austrian police kept a close eye on the bank, but there was no law that forbade the North Koreans from operating a bank in the country. Nevertheless, Austria’s police intelligence department stated in a 1997 report: “This bank [Golden Star] has been mentioned repeatedly in connection with everything from money-laundering and distribution of fake currency notes to involvement in the illegal trade in radioactive material.”

Eventually the international pressure to close the bank became too strong. Sources in Vienna believe the US played an important behind-the-scenes role in finally shuttering Golden Star’s modest office on 12 Kaiserstrasse in the Austrian capital. Until then, Vienna had been North Korea’s center for financial transactions in Europe and the Middle East. Visitors to North Korea have noted that euro coins in circulation in the country – the US dollar is not welcome in Pyongyang – invariably came from Austria. (Euro notes are the same in all European Union countries, but coins designate individual member countries.)

Last October, in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, Japan froze a dollar-denominated account that North Korea’s Tanchon Commercial Bank held with an unnamed Japanese bank. The account had a balance of $1,000 and had not been active for nearly a decade, so the move was mainly symbolic: to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot use banks in Japan for any deposits, big or small.

So it is hardly surprising that North Korea is looking for new ways to manage and maintain its international business interests and for new partners when it is increasingly locked out of most foreign countries. That is where Thailand apparently comes into the picture.

In 2004, trade between Thailand and North Korea for the first time overtook trade between Japan and North Korea. Previously, a string of North Korean-controlled front companies, managed by the Chosen Soren, or the Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, had supplied North Korea with computers, electronic goods and other vital items.

In 2003, North Korea’s total trade volume to Japan was just over $265 million and fell even lower in 2004. At the same time, trade between Thailand and North Korea rose to more than $331 million in 2004. Two-way trade between Thailand and North Korea totaled $328 million in 2005, with Thai exports to North Korea amounting to $207 million and North Korean imports to Thailand totaling $121 million.

During January-November 2006 – the latest statistics available from the Thai Customs Department – trade totaled about $345 million, with Thai exports accounting for $200 million and North Korean imports $145 million. Thai imports of gold and silver have pushed those trade figures higher.

North Korea’s trade with Thailand grew mainly under the previous government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who at one point proposed signing a free-trade agreement between the two countries. In August 2005, Thaksin was formally invited by Kim Jong-il to visit Pyongyang. The visit never materialized, and since Thaksin was ousted last year in a military coup, the future of Thai-North Korean relations is very much in doubt.

But gold and silver are highly fungible and North Korea apparently has lots of the commodities. It appears Kim Jong-il has for now found at least one golden path around the international sanctions imposed against his regime’s nuclear tests.

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