Losses grow for South Korean firms invested in DPRK

Pictured above (Google Earth): Kangso Mineral Water Processing Factory (Google Maps)

According to the Hankyoreh:

Former DD Trading Chairman Lee Dae-sik, 74, still has trouble sleeping when he thinks about the events of the past few years. In that time, he has had to shut down an effort in the North Korea that was earning 4 to 5 billion won ($3.7 million to $4.6 million) in annual sales just a few years ago, as a result of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s hardline policy against North Korea.

“At the time I was investing in North Korea, we had the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, and I never dreamed they would halt North Korea projects. Now the government will not let us do an effort it granted approval for, something we had been doing consistently. It is just…”

During an interview with the Hankyoreh at a cafe in the Hawolgok neighborhood of Seoul’s Seongbuk District on Tuesday evening, the day before the eleventh anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration, Lee was too overcome with emotion to finish his sentence. He is one of the many South Korean businesspeople who have suffered as a result of the government’s restrictions on trade with North Korea. According to a January-February survey of companies engaged in North Korea efforts, the 104 companies that responded sustained an average loss of 3.9 billion won ($3.6 million) as a result of the May 24 measures restricting inter-Korean trade.

Lee is a first-generation North Korea entrepreneur who has been engaged in trade with the country since the Kim Young-sam administration in 1994. Originally the operator of a shoe factory in Busan, Lee struggled with the competition of cheap labor in China and Northeast Asia and searched for a change before finally taking the leap into North Korea. At first, he imported Pyongyang soju and agricultural products like bracken, balloon flower roots, and pine mushrooms.

“After the June 15 summit in 2000, the North Koreans grew more flexible in their attitude and became easier to deal with,” he recalled.

Lee, who steadily expanded the range of his operations over the years, began an effort in 2005 with Pyongyang’s Kangso Yaksu. This mineral water, North Korean National Treasure No. 56, is naturally carbonated and contains minerals like calcium and iron. After securing exclusive sales rights from North Korean authorities, Lee completed construction on a production plant the next year at an investment of 3 billion won. According to the conditions of the contract, Lee sent the cost of the water and the raw materials for the bottles, along with caps and labels, and the North Koreans operates the factory and sent the water produced.

“We imported it to South Korea under the brand name of ‘Gangseo Cheongsan,’ and sales increased from an initial level of 100 thousand to 200 thousand bottles a month to 300 thousand to 400 thousand bottles a month,” he said.

But stormy clouds appeared on the horizon when the Lee Myung-bak administration took office in 2008. As inter-Korean relations grew chilly due to the shooting death of a South Korean tourist at Mt. Kumkang in July of that year and North Korea’s missile launch and nuclear test in April and May of 2009, respectively, the Lee administration placed restrictions on contact with North Korea by civilians.

“When you apply for contact with North Korea, the government tells you to ‘please refrain from doing so,’” Lee said. “They say ‘please refrain,’ but who is going to refuse a request from the government? They are basically telling you, ‘Don’t do it.’”

The decision left Lee unable to send the promised payment and bottle materials to North Korea and to receive the water. One day, a fax came in from North Korea. It notified Lee that the contract was null and void, as he had not supplied the raw materials or collected the water produced. “We had ten or so employees, and they all went their separate ways,” Lee sighed. “Fifteen years of work in North Korea, and all I have left now is a pile of debt.”

“North Korea said it would sell China the water produced at the facilities I invested in,” Lee added.

“Even so, they told me they would restore my rights if I am able to work again like before, so I really hope the inter-Korean trade restrictions are lifted right away so that I can do business freely.”

Read the full story here:
Losses continue for businesses engaged in inter-Korean trade
Hankyoreh
Park Byong-su
2011-6-16

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2 Responses to “Losses grow for South Korean firms invested in DPRK”

  1. I visited the bottling plant in 2009. The photos of the Kangso Mineral Water factory can be seen here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/sets/72157622452229980/with/3957109011/

  2. Poor guy, in every sense. Weep also for Andong Hemp, and many others: http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2011/03/06/rok-firms-hurt-by-inter-korean-trade-restrictions/

    This is so short-sighted of Lee MB. History will not be kind.