Let the Investors Lead the Way in N.Korea

Choson Ilbo
Song Hee-young
10/8/2007

One of the facts confirmed in the second inter-Korean summit is that North Korea is willing to push ahead with an open economic policy. Though he is reportedly averse to the terms of reform and opening, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il agreed to add Haeju, Nampo, Anbyeon and Mt. Baekdu as open areas, along with Mt. Kumgang and the Kaesong Industrial Complex. He also permitted opening infrastructure like railroads and ports.

Slow as it is, the direction of the flow can be confirmed. It resembles China’s early opening stage from the late 1970s to early 1980s when Deng Xioaping first pushed his reform policies.

Considering the pace, outsiders were pessimistic about reform in China then, and they predicted failure for companies that invested there. By the 1990s, however, it was clear that tremendous changes had taken place.

Korean entrepreneurs doing business in Kaesong and Mt. Gumgang believe that the North won’t move backwards now. Projects in those areas continued unhindered even during the nuclear test crisis, they point out. Unlike in the past, minor problems are eventually resolved through dialogue, albeit slowly, they testify.

“Now the North Koreans know the taste of money,” one businessman said, and they have begun to feel the fever for making more. A primitive sort of capitalist consciousness is growing, he said, and North Koreans are beginning to realize that making profits through a steady business is better than hoping for a windfall from the millions in aid money the Kim Dae-jung administration donated to the regime.

Having suffered through the Korean War, armed commando raids, naval skirmishes off the western coast and the nuclear crises, many South Koreans might dismiss the changes. Businessmen who were forced to hand over computers and fax machines as “entrance fees” or “meeting charges” when they visited Pyongyang may insist that nothing will change unless the regime is replaced.

But Mao Zedong’s Red Guards were also never expected to change, but they emerged as major Wall Street investors in three decades. If they truly feel the taste of money, there is no reason why the generations that follow Kim Jong-il will not change.

Now that we’ve seen the signs of such change, however small, we have to transform our formula for investing in the North. The government, above all, has to abandon its stance of controlling, coordinating and managing cross-border investment. The time has come to trust our businessmen. There should be no special treatment simply because the counterpart is North Korea; instead the government should leave investment in the North up to the investors, as it does with Vietnam and Africa.

Our corporations have had plenty of experience in the North. Daewoo, Hyundai, the Peace Motors Corp. owned by the Unification Church, and not a small number of small- and medium-sized firms have invested across the border. Many have come back with bitter tales, but now they can distinguish promising projects from dubious ones. They have paid their tuition.

What’s more, South Korean entrepreneurs have accumulated experience in making money in other dictatorial socialist countries, such as China, Russia and Eastern European nations, accessing the top leaders and breaking through bureaucratic barriers. In dealing with communists, businessmen can be far more competitive than public servants.

Nevertheless, the government requires advance notification when any South Korean company wants to contact North Korea, and the Unification Ministry and National Intelligence Service often get involved with even the smallest details. As it is now, North Korea asks our government what it can request from our businesses and the president had to be accompanied by a group of conglomerate heads when he visited Pyongyang.

Businesses that are forced to deal with our close-minded public servants in addition to the North Korean regime are liable to abandon cross-border plans altogether, especially when profitability is questionable. This is why the larger businesses have in many cases been the most reluctant to invest in the North.

Now that the opening of North Korea at last seems certain, it’s time that we adopted the same formula that succeeded in China. It was our businessmen who rushed into China first, and they contributed toward reconciliation and establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. We went through the same procedures in Russia and Vietnam.

The idea that the government should be the one to build industrial parks and conduct business and wage negotiations in North Korea is outmoded. When it comes to investing across the border, the government’s job should be to guarantee business freedoms. Then the investors should be left to negotiate with the regime and work out how to make money.

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