N.Korea in Fresh Attempt to Lure Foreign Investment

Choson Ilbo
12/10/2009

Even as North Korea struggles under UN sanctions and is in the midst of a controversial currency reform aimed at breaking the back of a nascent free market, the reclusive country is apparently in the process of changing laws in order to attract more foreign investment, an expert said Wednesday. It is even offering foreign companies wages cheaper than those paid to North Korean workers at the joint-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex, according to Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington D.C.

Pritchard, who visited Pyongyang last month along with Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation, told reporters in Washington. The North Korean trade department official they met there told them there are no strikes among North Korea’s skilled workers and were very aggressive in luring foreign investment. He added North Korean officials offered wages of 30 euros a month (around US$44), which was lower than the average $57 paid to workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The officials said they were also willing to offer various incentives to foreign companies interested in taking part in the construction of 100,000 homes in Pyongyang. North Korea appeared to be changing its attitude toward foreign countries as part of its goal to become a strong and powerful nation by 2012, he said.

In an article for Global Security [Posted below], the Internet-based provider of military and intelligence information, Snyder wrote, “North Korean colleagues at the Ministry of Trade appeared genuinely surprised and dismayed when we mentioned that UN Security Council Resolution 1874… contains provisions prohibiting companies from making new investments in North Korea.”

Snyder said North Korea’s interest in foreign investment as part of its goal to become a “strong and powerful nation” by 2012 is a new development and one that could play a role in resolving the nuclear stalemate.

But efforts to attract foreign investment and capital over the past 25 years have been a disaster. North Korea announced new regulations in September of 1984 to allow businesses from capitalist countries to operate there. It set up special economic zones in Rajin-Songbong in 1991 and in Sinuiju in 2002. But the Sinuiju project never got beyond the ground-breaking stage due to conflict with China, while empty factories litter Rajin-Sonbong.

North Korea aimed to attract $7 billion worth of foreign investment into Rajin-Sonbong, but actual investment amounted to only $140 million. According to the South Korean government and other sources, there are an estimated 400 foreign businesses operating in North Korea. Most of them are small businesses run by Chinese or North Korean residents in Japan. The shining exception is the Egyptian telecom company Orascom, which offers mobile phone services in the North. “It’s more accurate to say that there are no major foreign businesses operating in North Korea,” said Cho Dong-ho, a professor at Ewha Woman’s University.

North Korea forged its first pact guaranteeing foreign investment with Denmark in September 1996 and signed similar pacts with around 20 countries, including China, Russia, Singapore and Switzerland, as of 2008. There have been consistent reports that businesses in Europe and Southeast Asia were interested in doing business in the North, but hardly any made the move.

Cho Myung-chul, a professor at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, who taught economics at Kim Il Sung University in North Korea, said, “The reason why no listed foreign companies are operating in North Korea is because they may end up on the list of businesses subject to U.S. sanctions.” This is one of the reasons why North Korea has tried so desperately to be removed from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring countries.

And even if foreign businesses are interested in investing in North Korea, its lack of infrastructure, including steady power supply and adequate roads and ports, make it impossible to operate factories there. Cho Young-ki, a professor at Korea University, said, “You have to build a power plant if you want to build a factory in North Korea. Cheap labor does not mean businesses will profit there.” The electricity used by the Kaesong Industrial Complex is provided by South Korea, while Hyundai Asan operates its own generator at the North Korean resort in Mt. Kumgang.

Dispatch from Pyongyang: An Offer You Can’t Refuse!
Global Security
Scott Snyder
12/07/2009

Every North Korean seems to have been mobilized for an all-out push to mark their country’s arrival as a “strong and powerful nation” in 2012, which marks the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth, Kim Jong Il’s seventieth birthday, and the thirtieth birthday of Kim Jong Il’s third son and reported successor, Kim Jong-Eun. Pyongyang citizens have cleaned up the city during a 150-day labor campaign, followed by a second 100-day campaign now underway. The Ryugyong Hotel in the middle of Pyongyang, unfinished for over two decades, has been given a facelift courtesy of the Egyptian telecommunications firm Orascom, which expects to have 100,000 mobile phone customers in Pyongyang by the end of the year. But it is still difficult to shake the feeling in Pyongyang that one has walked onto a movie set in between takes. Or that the used car looks good on the outside, but you really don’t know what you might find if you were able to look under the hood or give it a test-drive.

North Korean foreign ministry officials saw United Nations condemnation of their April missile launch as an affront to their sovereignty. This is the ostensible reason the North Koreans have walked away from six party talks. Having conducted a second nuclear test, North Korean officials want to be considered as a nuclear power, choosing instead to “magnanimously” set aside nuclear differences in order to focus on the need to eliminate U.S. “hostile policy” by replacing the armistice with a permanent peace settlement. Essentially, Pyongyang’s new offer–as a “nuclear weapons state”–has shifted from the denuclearization for normalization deal at the core of the 2005 Six Party Joint Statement to “peace first; denuclearization, maybe later.” There was no mention of “action for action” by our North Korean interlocutors.

But the North Koreans are likely to find when Ambassador Stephen Bosworth arrives in Pyongyang next week that the United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. There is virtually no area of agreement between the two governments on the nuclear issue based on public statements made by the two sides thus far, suggesting the likelihood that both sides will face a difficult conversation.

A new component of North Korea’s strategy for achieving its economic and infrastructure goals in the run-up to 2012 is its effort to attract investment from overseas. The Director of North Korea’s newly established Foreign Investment Board unveiled a new plan for attracting equity, contractual, and 100% foreign owned joint venture investments. On paper, the rules incorporate provisions for repatriation of profit, generous tax incentives, and a labor rate of thirty Euros per month. This rate undercuts the compensation of $57.50 per month currently offered at the South Korean-invested Kaesong Industrial Zone. Even more generous was the offer of special concessions in North Korea’s natural resources sector for companies willing to build 100,000 units of new housing in Pyongyang that have already been promised in the run-up to 2012.

North Korean colleagues at the Ministry of Trade appeared genuinely surprised and dismayed when we mentioned that UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which condemned North Korea’s May 25, 2009, nuclear test, contains provisions prohibiting companies from making new investments in the DPRK. This is all the more unfortunate because on paper, North Korean efforts to open its economy through foreign investment are exactly the course that should be encouraged, and North Korea’s goals for 2012 could be advanced significantly with inward investment from companies that might be willing to take the risk, but the nuclear issue stands in the way. This is not to mention that North Korea’s own economic retrenchment and anti-market policies, including the “currency reforms” announced earlier this week, stretch the credibility of the North Korean government to back up these laws. Recent surveys of Chinese investors suggest few demonstration projects for successful investment in North Korea and a high probability of getting scammed or fleeced on the ground.

But the North Korean plea for foreign investment does suggest a potential point of leverage that deserves careful consideration, and that is the possibility of an investment in a strategic commodity that is of special interest to the United States: North Korea’s plutonium stock. During the Clinton administration, former Defense Secretary William Perry led efforts to make similar purchases of nuclear materials from the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which had inherited stocks of nuclear materials from the breakup of the Soviet Union. These transactions advanced the cause of nuclear non-proliferation by ensuring that these countries would not become nuclear states. A 2004 report of a Task Force on U.S.-Korea Policy co-sponsored by the Center for International Policy and the University of Chicago, also suggested a plutonium “buy-out” proposal for North Korea, despite the obvious moral hazard of appearing to reward North Korea’s bad behavior. Any transaction with North Korea involves moral hazard, and North Korea has already proven that it will sell or sub-contract nuclear materials to the highest bidder. One positive of this approach is that any transaction involving removal of nuclear materials or capabilities from the North would be irreversible, in contrast to past practice of offering irreversible food-aid benefits to North Korea in exchange for participation in multilateral dialogue, but not for irreversible steps toward denuclearization.

In a post-9/11, post-North Korean nuclear test world, the Obama administration must find a formula that facilitates North Korea’s irreversible actions on the path toward denuclearization rather than agreeing to half-measures: North Korea’s immediate focus is on gaining the resources necessary to mark 2012 as a year of accomplishment, yet the North has been highly critical of Lee Myung-bak’s “grand bargain” Proposal. Denuclearization needs to be placed on the North Korean agenda as an accomplishment that North Korea will be able to justify as part of its broader 2012 objective of becoming a “strong and prosperous state.” Unless a new formula can be found by which to bring these two objectives into line with each other, it is likely that the United States and North Korea will continue to talk past each other.

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