David Kang on North Korean trade potential

Kang: North Korean Trade Potential
Council on Foreign Relations

Last December, David C. Kang, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and an adjunct professor at Tuck Business School, discussed the North Korean economy for the Council on Foreign Relations. I have excerpted some of his comments below.

His view on the new North-South cargo train service:

It doesn’t have huge economic significance in the overall GDP of North Korea. But it does have major economic significance in the fact that what North Korea had to do in order to let a train go through was an awful lot of adjustment[…]in terms of linking up the railroad, all the ministries had to prepare.  The old [Korean Energy Development Organization] had this problem as well. [W]hen they wanted Americans and South Koreans working in North Korea to build this light-water reactor, [they] had to set up protocols [Post offices, phone calls, where they were going to stay, etc]. It is pretty significant in terms of how much they had to adjust.

He quoted the following figures on North – South trade:

From $200 million in 1998, to now exceeding $1.7 billion in 2007.   South Korea’s total trade volume is $250 billion.

His opinion on the direction of the North Korean economy:

At this point what we’re seeing is very initial steps on the part of North Korea as they try to open up reform and yet maintain control. At the same time, they are being forced into a number of institutional changes and mind-set changes that are the first step forward in this process.

His view of North Korea’s comparative advantage:

Most of the companies that have gone in—the South Korean companies that have gone in—are assembly and light manufactures, such as or textiles and light consumer goods. This is the sort of obvious point of departure. It’s not hugely capital intensive in terms of building factories, and can take advantage of North Korean cheap labor and South Korean technological advantages.

There are a lot of potential mineral resources in North Korea, which would require a whole infrastructure of legal reforms to happen before anyone would take care of them. But at this point the safest bets are the ones that are on the order of assembly and light manufactures in the North and then exporting them out.

His view of South Korea’s long term goals:

If there’s unification, or even better relations, and South Korean companies can use cheap North Korean labor, instead of having to send those factories to China or Vietnam—not only do they speak Korean, they’re culturally similar, and the labor would be cheaper.

[I]f you could reconnect the railroads, from Japan, through Pusan [South Korea], up through North Korea, then out to China and Russia, you would be linking up all these economies in a much more efficient way than they are now. So everybody wants that. But obviously there’s the political problem. And even on the infrastructure side, the North Korean rail system is so old and so decrepit, that basically it would have to be rebuilt from zero. But the potential upsides are massive, in the long run.

His view of China’s engagement:

China has been essentially as deeply involved in economic engagement with North Korea as has South Korea—and by some measures, actually more so. Whereas South Koreans just do this assembling, some Chinese companies are moving in and building full factories in the North. There’s a lot of interest in Chinese-North Korean economic relations on both sides.


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