Archive for the ‘Gambling’ Category

Surfing Net in North Korea

Monday, November 12th, 2007

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Kim Jong-il loves to surf the net. In 2001 he asked the U.S. Secretary of State for her e-mail address, and in 2002 he told a visiting North Korean dignitary that he spent much time going through South Korean sites. He repeated this statement during the recent summit describing himself as ”an internet expert.”

Despite his relatively advanced age, Kim Jong-il takes the IT industry seriously. He obviously believes that the IT industry might become a wunderwaffen (super weapon) which one day will save the ailing North Korean economy (Kim Jong-il has always believed in simple, one-step, technology-based fixes for problems).

Now and then, news agencies report on North Korean efforts to train software specialists, or on a technology firm established by the North Koreans, or even on Kim Jong-il’s plans to create a large industrial complex which would become the North Korean reply to the Silicon Valley.

Efforts to create a computer industry go back to the late 1970s. In those days, the U.N. Development Program helped the North build a small pilot integrated circuit plant. Its history was plagued by one misfortune after another: the plant’s building proved to be badly insulated, the electricity supply was unreliable, and the engineers who were sent overseas for training arrived too late (most of them did not speak English, anyway). However, by late 1985 the plant was operational, producing ICs, an essential component of a computer.

By the early 1990s, the North was producing some 20,000 computers a year. Not much, but enough to provide for the military and even earn some money from export (over 60 percent of them were said to be exported).

In the early 1990s the North Koreans developed their own software, including a word processor. The latter had, among others, a peculiar function: it could automatically insert the names of the Great Leader and Dear Leader through a specially designated hot key.

In the North the PC was never meant to be a personal computer. It is reserved for office or industrial use, not for home – not least because the Internet is unavailable. For a regime which (correctly) assumes that its survival depends on its ability to keep the populace ignorant about outside world, the internet presents a mortal danger. Matters are further exacerbated by the unique success of the South Korean internet. If North Koreans were allowed to surf the numerous Southern sites at will, the carefully constructed picture of the world would instantly fall apart.

Thus, the internet is outlawed – but not completely. In recent years, foreign embassies have been allowed to connect to Chinese internet providers, but they have to pay the exorbitant fee for an overseas call (currently, $2 a minute). The connection is unreliable, but if your bills are paid by your country’s taxpayers, you probably can check your email… Access to email through business centers and even Internet cafes is becoming possible as well _ as long as one is a foreigner and is willing to pay exorbitant prices.

Only the privileged few have unlimited high-speed access to the Internet. But these trusted people are numbered in the hundreds or, perhaps, count a few thousands. Access is provided for the military, intelligence, and few privileged research centers only. Rooms where the internet-connected computers are installed are considered off limits for the North Korean personnel, and only people with proper security clearance can access this source of dangerous knowledge.

Less privileged institutions have access to local networks with limited connections to the World Wide Web. Their task is to let scientists and engineers retrieve the data they need without unduly exposing them to the dangers of overseas decadence.

There have been attempts to make money through IT. None of the grand plans for selling locally developed software on the international market have come to fruition, but there are easier ways to make a buck. In 2002 the North Koreans started an on-line gambling site in cooperation with a South Korean company. It targeted South Koreans, since gambling is illegal here. Its message board attracted much popularity since it was a place where the Southerners could exchange messages with the North Korean staff. The ability to chat with the Northerners was exciting (even though the largely young participants probably did not realize to which extent their interlocutors were controlled). The combination of gambling and propaganda obviously terrified Seoul, and the site was closed down.

Another area where North Koreans are trying their luck (and obviously not without moderate success) are game development and computer animation. Indeed, even major studios are sometimes inclined to outsource their animation work to North Korea.

The Internet remains a hot potato for the North Korean leaders. They understand its importance, but they do not know what to do about its political dangers. While facing such a choice, they have always opted for political security.


Google Earth North Korea (version 6)

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

The most authoritative map of North Korea on Google Earth
North Korea Uncovered: Version 6
Download it here

kissquare.JPGThis map covers North Korea’s agriculture, aviation, cultural locations, manufacturing facilities, railroad, energy infrastructure, politics, sports venues, military establishments, religious facilities, leisure destinations, and national parks. It is continually expanding and undergoing revisions. This is the sixth version.

Additions to the newest version of North Korea Uncovered include: Alleged Syrian nuclear site (before and after bombing), Majon beach resort, electricity grid expansion, Runga Island in Pyongyang, Mt. Ryongak, Yongbyon historical fort walls, Suyang Fort walls and waterfall in Haeju, Kaechon-Lake Taesong water project, Paekma-Cholsan waterway, Yachts (3), and Hyesan Youth Copper Mine.

Disclaimer: I cannot vouch for the authenticity of many locations since I have not seen or been to them, but great efforts have been made to check for authenticity. These efforts include pouring over books, maps, conducting interviews, and keeping up with other peoples’ discoveries. In many cases, I have posted sources, though not for all. This is a thorough compilation of lots of material, but I will leave it up to the reader to make up their own minds as to what they see. I cannot catch everything and I welcome contributions.


North Korea on Google Earth

Saturday, October 6th, 2007

Version 5: Download it here (on Google Earth) 

This map covers North Korea’s agriculture, aviation, cultural locations, manufacturing facilities, railroad, energy infrastructure, politics, sports venues, military establishments, religious facilities, leisure destinations, and national parks. It is continually expanding and undergoing revisions. This is the fifth version.

Additions to the latest version of “North Korea Uncovered” include updates to new Google Earth overlays of Sinchon, UNESCO sites, Railroads, canals, and the DMZ, in addition to Kim Jong Suk college of eduation (Hyesan), a huge expansion of the electricity grid (with a little help from Martyn Williams) plus a few more parks, antiaircraft sites, dams, mines, canals, etc.

Disclaimer: I cannot vouch for the authenticity of many locations since I have not seen or been to them, but great efforts have been made to check for authenticity. These efforts include pouring over books, maps, conducting interviews, and keeping up with other peoples’ discoveries. In many cases, I have posted sources, though not for all. This is a thorough compilation of lots of material, but I will leave it up to the reader to make up their own minds as to what they see. I cannot catch everything and I welcome contributions.

I hope this map will increase interest in North Korea. There is still plenty more to learn, and I look forward to receiving your additions to this project.


Kim Jong Il’s Yacht, UNESCO, Golf, and the Taean Glass Factory

Tuesday, July 31st, 2007

Now available on Google Earth! 
(click above to download to your own Google Earth)

North Korea Uncovered v.3

Google Earth added a high-resolution overlay of the area between Pyongyang and Nampo.  In it, most of the Koguryo tombs listed with UNESCO are now distinguishable.  In addition, viewers can see the latest Kim Jong Il palace (including a yacht), the DPRK’s premier golf course, and the Chinese-built Taean Glass factory.  I have also made some progress in mapping out the DPRK electricity grid.

This is the most authoritative map of North Korea that exists publicly today.  Agriculture, aviation, cultural institutions, manufacturing, railroad, energy, politics, sports, military, religion, leisure, national parks…they are all here, and will captivate anyone interested in North Korea for hours.

Naturally, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of many locations since I have not seen or been to them, but great efforts have been made to check for authenticity. In many cases, I have posted sources, though not for all. This is a thorough compilation of lots of material, but I will leave it up to the reader to make up their own minds on the more “controversial” locations. In time, I hope to expand this further by adding canal and road networks.

I hope this post will launch a new interest in North Korea. There is still plenty more to learn, and I look forward to hearing about improvements that can be made.


Emperor Hotel Casino Re-opens

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

Daily NK
Han Yong Jin

[NKeconWatch: Lots of pictures in original article]

The Emperor Hotel and Casino in Rajin-Sunbong has re-opened. It had earlier been a source of Chinese authority concern over remote gambling as the casino attempted to attract foreign tourists.

The North Korean regime designated Rajin and Sunbong as a special free economics and trade zone in December, 1991 and encouraged foreign businesses to locate there. Hong Kong’s Emperor Group opened a five star hotel with 100 guest rooms and a casino in July, 2000.

However, Cai Haowen, a superintendent at the Transportation Ministry in Yanbian-Zhou, embezzled approximately $425,000 of public funds and threw away all the money for gambling in the Emperor Hotel Casino, causing the Chinese government to close the hotel’s casino on January 11st, 2004.

Chinese bloggers who have visited the hotel released photos through a Chinese portal site,

Bao Yong visited the Emperor in April and noted that the hotel is 50 km from Huichun, China, and the only tourists were Chinese. North Koreans were not permitted and there was no evidence of Russians. There were just Chinese cars with license plates from Liaoning, Heilongjiang, and, predominantly, Yanbian in the parking lot.

He said that “the strict hotel and casino management seemed more like agents or gangsters than managers, who were everywhere, creepily scrutinizing gamblers’ movement and attitudes.” They prevented him from taking photos inside the casino.


Drugs Stashed Away at a Foreigners Casino in Yangkang Hotel

Tuesday, May 1st, 2007

Daily NK
Kwon Jeong Hyun

Drug dealings have been occurring frequently amongst North Korea’s wealthy class which has led to an increase in people “taking medicine” an inside source recently informed.

Further, an underground casino for foreigners at Yangkag Hotel, Pyongyang, is known to have been openly circulating drugs. Yangkag Hotel is an elite hotel and was built in 1995 in co-partnership with France. Currently, the hotel operates a casino used by foreigners.

The source informed on the 30th, “Drug dealers directly approach the wealthy class who live around the borders of North Korea-China” and revealed, “People fall for the dealer’s trap and hence the number of addicted drug sellers and wealthy class is increasing.”

A few North Korean tradesmen even testified that a large number of the rich living in the border regions of North Korea, have in fact dealt with drugs in one form or another. Apparantly, about 3 out of 10 rich persons in North Korea have had some experiences with drugs and most of the long-distance drivers in North Korea take drugs.

One North Korean tradesman ‘H’ revealed, “Drug dealers con North Koreans with money by saying that the ‘medicine’ clears the head and acts as an aphrodisiac by giving you strength. Then they let the buyers taste-test the drug for free.” H said, “After a few times, the majority of these people become addicted and the dealer sets up a relationship to sell the drug for a long time.”

‘J’ who lives around the border regions expressed the seriousness of the drug issue by telling his own story. Through North Korea-China trade, J’s brother-in-law had accumulated a lot of wealth. One morning without any warning, he suddenly died in which J had thought was a hart attack. However, he later found out from his sister that drugs had been the cause.

For the past 2 years, J’s brother-in-law had been earning money and also spending it on drugs. He tried to quit on numerous occasions but was unable to escape from the persistent temptation by the drug dealer. As time passed, the symptoms of an addict surfaced which ultimately led to a drug overdose and death.

J said, “Never in my dreams could I have imagined that a good person like my brother-in-law would become a drug addict. Though authorities are enforcing regulations and punishment on the misuse of drugs, the problem is that there are no specific penalties or laws. If this keeps going, things could get worse.”

The source said, “North Korean authorities have made numerous decrees on various occasions stating that they will toughen punishment. But there are no specific rules or law and so there is no control over the offenders.” The source added, “The truth is, it will be difficult to penalize everyone according to the decrees set as many people throughout the regions of North Korea are now using drugs including the rich living in the cities.”

On the other hand, the district of Hamheung is receiving much focus as it is known to be the base for drug manufacture. Drugs sold on the black-market in Pyongyang, Chongjin and Shinuiju are considered of high quality and receive utmost trust if the drugs have been made in Hamheung.

Hamheung’s history dates back to when the chemical industry was first booming in North Korea. As a result, North Korea authorities began to produce medicinal drugs to attract more foreign currency. When the economic situation worsened, workers and the elite were known to have stashed drugs secretly in order to make money.

In addition to this, as lifestyles became more difficult, there were rumors suggesting that chemical analysts brought some raw materials of Philopon from China to secretly make drugs within the labs.

“It’s not only Hamheung. Drugs are easily available even in Pyongyang” the source said and, “Drugs are openly traded at the underground foreigners casino in Yangkag Hotel (for Hong Kong, Macau and Chinese tourists).”

The source continued, “The elite in Pyongyang often take drugs and this hotel is known for its stash of drugs” and added, “The Safety Agency and the Protection Agency must take action. Otherwise, the situation is only going to get worse.”


North Korea Uncovered (Google Earth)

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

DOWNLOAD IT HERE (to your own Google Earth)

Using numerous maps, articles, and interviews I have mapped out North Korea by “industry” (or topic) on Google Earth.  This is the most authoritative map of North Korea that exists publicly today.

Agriculture, aviation, cultural, manufacturing, railroad, energy, politics, sports, military, religion, leisure, national parks…they are all here, and will captivate anyone interested in North Korea for hours.

Naturally, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of many locations since I have not seen or been to them, but great efforts have been made to check for authenticity. In many cases, I have posted sources, though not for all. This is a thorough compilation of lots of material, but I will leave it up to the reader to make up their own minds on the more “controversial” locations.  In time, I hope to expand this further by adding canal and road networks. 

I hope this post will launch a new interest in North Korea. There is still plenty more to learn, and I look forward to hearing about improvements that can be made.


North Korea’s Kim Allows Tentative Stirrings of Profit Motive

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Bradley K. Martin

A sign of North Korea’s fledgling moves toward a market economy can be found at the Pyongyang monument commemorating the 1945 founding of the Workers’ Party. Beneath a 50-meter-tall rendition of the party’s logo — a hammer, sickle and writing brush — sits a street photographer.

A handmade sign displays her price list and sample photos, mostly of groups of North Korean visitors, with the monument as background.

The photographer is one of countless sidewalk entrepreneurs – – most of them selling food and drink — who have set up shop in North Korea since 2002. Before that, they would have been hauled off to re-education camps for profiteering. In the late 1990s, North Korea’s Civil Law Dictionary described merchants as a class to be eradicated because they “buy goods from producers at a low price and sell them to consumers at a high price by way of fraud, deceit and spoils.”

Since then, the party newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, has quoted Kim Jong Il, who’s held supreme power since the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il Sung, as favoring profits under socialist economic management.

North Korea, one of the world’s last Stalinist regimes, has gradually begun permitting commerce. On a four-day visit to Pyongyang, the capital, in October — arranged and scripted by the government — a group of 17 Western journalists got a glimpse of the changes. Clean, new restaurants were packed with paying customers while the streets — almost empty in 1979 and only lightly traveled in ’89 and ’92 — bustled with bicycles, motorbikes and Japanese sedans.

Casino Pyongyang

In the state-owned Yanggakdo Hotel on an island in the Taedong River, a mostly Chinese clientele played slot machines, cards or roulette at the Casino Pyongyang. Since 1998, Macau billionaire Stanley Ho, through his Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau SARL, has invested $30 million in the casino, whose staff is also Chinese.

Now some investors from farther afield are joining pioneering Chinese and South Koreans in plunging into a country once so isolated it was known as the Hermit Kingdom. In September, Anglo- Sino Capital Partners, a London-based fund manager, said it had formed the Chosun Development & Investment Fund, which plans to raise $50 million for investments in North Korea.

“It’s the last virgin economy,” says Colin McAskill, 65, a director of Anglo-Sino and chairman of Koryo Asia Ltd., which is investment adviser to the new fund.

Natural Resources

Besides recent changes in the economic system, a 99 percent literacy rate and a minimum wage for workers in foreign-invested ventures of only $35 a month, McAskill says, he was drawn by North Korea’s rich natural resources — including iron ore, copper, lead, zinc, molybdenum, gold, nickel, manganese, tungsten, anthracite and lignite.

The fund will concentrate on North Korean companies that have been active internationally in the past, with track records as foreign currency earners, says McAskill.

He negotiated on behalf of North Korea with foreign bank creditors in 1987, when the country was unable to repay some $900 million in balance-of-payment loans that had enabled the regime in the 1970s to purchase Western industrial technology — Swiss watch-making machinery, for example — as well as such non-capital goods as 1,000 Volvo sedans from Sweden.

Oil Potential

The country’s petroleum potential lured Dublin-based Aminex Plc and its Korea-focused subsidiary, Korex Ltd., which in August announced the signing of a nine-year production-sharing agreement to explore and develop 66,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) of North Korean territory. The agreement covers areas in the Yellow Sea’s West Korea Bay and in the Sea of Japan as well as onshore.

While North Korea lacks proven petroleum reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the West Korea Bay in particular may contain hydrocarbon reserves, as it’s considered to be a geological extension of China’s oil-rich Bohai Bay.

More foreign investment may come, says Tony Michell, a Seoul- based consultant on North Korea. Michell, a 58-year-old Briton, says he has recently shepherded 20 senior managers of international companies, representing seven nationalities, to Pyongyang.

“They’re big players,” says Michell, declining to identify his clients by name or company. “They’re looking at everything, from services to manufacturing. They want to get the measure of the North Koreans and be ready if the six-party talks succeed.”

Six-Party Talks

The so-called six-party talks — between North Korea and China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. — are aimed at ending the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. In September, the six countries agreed on a statement of principles to govern further talks. It called for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, a peace treaty and economic cooperation in energy, trade and investment.

Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute, an affiliate of the Hyundai Group, projected in September that a successful outcome to the talks would be worth as much as $55 billion to the economy in the North — and more than twice that in the South.

Optimism about the economy has boosted the prices of defaulted North Korean debt originally owed to hundreds of creditors, mostly European banks, which in the 1970s began meeting as a London-based ad hoc group to discuss restructuring options. In the 1990s, that so-called London Club turned a portion of the debt into Euroclearable certificates, securities that were denominated in Swiss francs and German marks.

The certificates are trading at about 20-21 percent of face value, up from 12 percent in 2003, according to London-based Exotix Ltd., a unit of Icap Plc, one of a few financial firms that make an over-the-counter market in them.

Excessive Optimism

The debt’s price has risen in the past on excessive optimism about the country’s future. In early 1998, the debt was trading at nearly 60 percent of face value amid rumors that North Korea would collapse imminently and be absorbed by wealthy South Korea, which would then make good on the entire outstanding debt.

That had not happened by the time of the crash later that year in global emerging-market securities, when the North Korean debt price sank to about 25 percent of face value.

Exotix estimates that North Korea owes the equivalent of some $1.6 billion in principal and interest to banks out of a total $14 billion in principal and interest owed globally to mainly communist and formerly communist countries.

Although a cease-fire was declared in 1953 in the war between North Korea and China on one side and the United Nations — under whose flag the Americans, South Koreans and others had fought — on the other side, no peace treaty has ever been signed.

The U.S. maintains sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act that restrict trade and financial transactions with North Korea — and apply to Americans and permanent residents of the U.S. and to branches, subsidiaries and controlled affiliates of U.S. organizations throughout the world.

China, Russia

North Korea’s flirtations with capitalism are belated compared with those of China and the former Soviet Union, which began opening their economies in the 1970s.

North Korea did pass a law legalizing foreign investment in 1984. The law, which permitted equity joint ventures between state enterprises and foreigners, attracted only $150 million in investment during the following decade, largely because investors were put off by the country’s poor roads, railroads, power systems and phone networks and by official interference in joint ventures’ recruitment, dismissal and compensation of workers, according to a 2000 thesis by Pilho Park, a postgraduate student at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison.

Vietnam Example

In contrast, Vietnam lured $7.5 billion in investment in the first five years after it opened its economy to foreign capital in 1988, Park wrote.

Following the collapse of European communism in the early 1990s, North Korea opened the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone on the northeastern border with China and Russia. A brief flurry of investor interest ensued and then fizzled out when a crisis over the country’s nuclear weapons program took North Korea to the brink of war with the U.S. and South Korea in 1994.

In the mid ’90s, catastrophic floods, combined with the collapse of the global communist system of aid and preferential trade, caused a severe energy shortage that crippled the economy. As much as 70 percent of manufacturing capacity went idle, according to the South Korean central bank.

Also in the mid ’90s, famine killed as many as 2.5 million North Koreans, by the estimate of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Food Insecurity

Since then, food aid from abroad, an absence of large-scale natural catastrophes and a 2005 harvest that was the biggest in 10 years have kept North Korea from the massive starvation that’s taken place elsewhere, including Niger, says Richard Ragan, North Korea director for the United Nations World Food Program.

Still, “the country faces chronic food insecurity,” Ragan says. “One of the things that happened with the food shortages is that marginal lands became less controlled. You see people trying to farm on some of the most inhospitable plots of land you could imagine.”

In October, steep, unterraced hillsides were plowed outside Pyongyang. The crops can then wash down, rocks and all, during rainstorms, harming water supplies and damaging farmland – fertility.

A second nuclear weapons crisis boiled up in 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of conducting a secret uranium enrichment program — to replace a plutonium program that it had frozen as part of a settlement of the earlier crisis.

Economic Rules

That same year, the regime proceeded with what then Prime Minister Hong Song Nam described as dramatic new economic measures, which helped bring arbitrarily set prices and foreign exchange rates closer to those prevailing on the black market.

The North Korean won consequently dropped to 150 won to the dollar in December 2002 from 2.15 to the dollar a year earlier. The official rate is currently about 170 won, while on the black market, one dollar can bring about 2,000 won.

The government also introduced pay incentives aimed at boosting worker productivity. The system is in operation at enterprises such as the Pyongyang Embroidery Institute, where some 400 women stitch elaborate pictures for framing and sale.

Employees who don’t perform up to expectations aren’t fired; they’re denied raises, says spokeswoman Woo Kum Suk. Unable to live on their minuscule basic salary, equivalent at black market rates to something over a dollar a month, non-performers eventually quit and go elsewhere, Woo says. Good workers can see their salaries raised as much as fivefold.


“In my opinion, it’s good to have this system,” she says. “Although the government supplies things to us, sometimes there’s something more we want to buy.”

North Korea has some way to go before many investors rush in. According to a UN report, net investment inflow for 2003 — the most recent year for which statistics are available — was a negative figure: minus $5 million.

Currently the country is constructing a new special economic zone at Kaesong, just north of the South Korean border, where several small companies from the South already employ North Koreans to make clothing, footwear and household goods. Authorities declined to let Western reporters visit it, permitting only a glimpse from a highway bridge a mile away.

Those who are investing are taking a long-term view. Singaporean entrepreneur Richard Savage was looking at least five years into the future in 2001, when he formed a joint venture tree plantation with the Ministry of Foreign Trade. The company, Evergreen Kormax Paulownia Ltd., is 30 percent-owned by the government, which has assigned Savage 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) on a 50-year lease with an option to extend for 20 more.

Timber Business

Savage, 58, says he, family members, friends and a few other investors have put $3 million into the project so far. Savage says he hopes that by the time the paulownia trees mature — they grow as fast as 7 centimeters (2.85 inches) a day on his farm, and some may be ready for harvesting five years after planting — he’ll be able to sell the wood in a unified Korean market.

When the Northern economy takes off, the first beneficiary will be the building industry, he says. “That’s why I’m in timber,” he says, adding that his fallback plan is to sell the wood to China, Japan and South Korea.

It’s not the first venture in North Korea for Savage, who wears a cowboy hat and whose e-mail moniker is WildRichSavage. In 1994, he introduced North Korean officials to Loxley Pcl, a Thai telecommunications company. In 1995, an affiliate formed for the purpose, Loxley Pacific Co., signed a joint venture agreement with North Korea’s post and telecommunications ministry to create modern telecommunications in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone. The venture earns about $1 million a year, Loxley Pacific Chief Financial Officer C.C. Kuei, 56, says.

Mining for Gold

North Korea’s 1992 Foreign Investment Law guaranteed that foreign investors’ shares of profits could be repatriated, a promise that’s now being tested by Kumsan Joint Venture Co., a gold mining concern that’s half owned by a Singapore-led group of Asian investors and half owned by Hungsong Economic Group, a large trading, mining and manufacturing group in Pyongyang that’s controlled by North Korea’s military.

Roger Barrett, a Beijing-based British consultant, has helped arrange financing and technology for Kumsan. Barrett, 50, introduced Kumsan to the foreign investors, whom he declined to identify.

The company used its investment to buy secondhand mining equipment from Australia in 2004 for the venture’s mine 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level near the city of Hamhung. In the first year the new equipment was used, Barrett says, the mine produced about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of gold, half of which the foreign investors took out of the country. He says doing business with North Koreans has proved to be absolutely normal. “It’s working very well,” he says.

Foreign-Run Bank

The business environment in North Korea is surprisingly welcoming, says Nigel Cowie, 43, a former HSBC Holdings Plc banker who was hired a decade ago by Peregrine Investment Holdings Ltd. to start North Korea’s only foreign-run bank.

When Peregrine collapsed in 1998, Cowie and the North Korean joint venture partner kept the local unit operating. He and three other investors bought Peregrine’s 70 percent stake in it from the firm’s liquidators in 2000. Cowie, who’s general manager of what’s now called Daedong Credit Bank, says the bank has about $10 million in assets and has only foreigners as customers, mostly Chinese, Japanese and Western individuals and institutions. Only North Korean-owned banks can do business with state enterprises and North Korean individuals.

Better Living Conditions

Living conditions for expatriates have improved significantly in the past three or four years, Cowie says over a meal of Korean barbecue in the capital’s Koryo Hotel. “For me, personally, it’s things like creature comforts, more shops, Internet, e-mail,” he says. While the Internet is available to foreigners, it is forbidden to most North Koreans.

Cowie says his biggest challenge at the bank comes from outside North Korea. In September, the U.S. Treasury Department barred U.S. financial institutions from dealing with a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, that it said had been “a willing pawn” in corrupt North Korean activities and represented a risk for money laundering and other financial crimes.

The bank and North Korea both denied the charges, but the Macau government took over the bank and announced it would provide no services to North Korea in the future. Cowie says the action tied up a big chunk of Daedong Credit Bank’s customers’ assets because Banco Delta Asia had been a main correspondent bank for North Korean banks.

The Treasury Department in October broadened its dragnet by ordering a freeze of the assets, wherever in the world the U.S. could assert its jurisdiction, of eight North Korean companies it suspected of involvement in proliferating weapons of mass destruction.

`WMD Trafficking’

The department explained its action in an Oct. 21 statement on its Web site: “The designations announced today are part of the ongoing interagency effort by the United States Government to combat WMD trafficking by blocking the property of entities and individuals that engage in proliferation activities and their support networks.”

North Korea sought to connect the Treasury actions to Washington’s position in the six-party talks. The country’s Korean Central News Agency, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said on Dec. 2 that “lifting the financial sanctions against the DPRK is essential for creating an atmosphere for implementing the joint statement and a prerequisite to the progress of the six-party talks.”

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy to the talks, had said in a Nov. 11 press conference that the asset freeze wasn’t directly related to the talks.

Money Laundering Banned

Cowie says he doubts the U.S. action was intended to harm Daedong, which had already issued a manual prohibiting money laundering. He says he fears such U.S. actions could damp investor enthusiasm for North Korea. “It can cause the people doing legitimate business to just give up,” he says.

Cowie isn’t packing up to leave, though. Neither is Felix Abt, a Swiss native who heads a new European Business Association in Pyongyang. “I am very busy with visiting foreign business delegations,” Abt, 50, says. “Take it as a sign that the economy is developing and that more foreign business activities are under way.”

Outsiders’ investment on capitalism’s farthest frontier is gradually bringing benefits to North Koreans, too, says Savage, the tree farmer. “I can’t convert the whole country, but for the people who work for me, I’m giving them a better standard of living,” he says. “Slowly, people will prefer not to work for the government.”

If Savage and his fellow pioneers have their way, it’s only a matter of time before capitalism takes root in North Korea.


Psychiatrist with a head for business

Saturday, December 3rd, 2005

Asia Times
Michael Rank

From psychiatrist to international banker and gambling tycoon is an unusual career path, but Hong Kong-born Dr Johnny Hon says it makes quite a lot of sense. “Wealthy clients need a psychiatrist more than they need a banker,” he quipped. “Training in psychiatry makes you understand clients better. Most of them are elderly. They are concerned about their health and how to plan for passing their wealth down to their children.”

Hon, 34, was awarded a PhD in psychiatry from Cambridge University in 1998, but left medicine for finance after being recruited by the Dutch bank ABN AMRO as a private banker in Hong Kong. He didn’t stay with the Amsterdam-based bank long, however, and now has his own business empire, Global Group (Europe) plc, stretching from a joint venture bank in North Korea to a stake in a lottery in China, not to mention another bank in the Comoro Islands off Madagascar and an online gambling company in London.

Hon’s business ventures tend towards the exotic, but in an interview at his headquarters in London’s Docklands financial district he came across as measured and affable – even if I never did quite understand how he switched from a dissertation on the association between Down’s Sydrome and Alzheimer’s disease to international finance.

This has been a big year for Hon, who in June opened the Koryo Global Credit Bank in Pyongyang and in July announced the signing of a contract to co-manage the state sports lottery in the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou.

Under the deal with Guizhou, Hon’s UK company, Betex, became the first non-Chinese company to become involved in gambling operations in mainland China (although numerous overseas gaming firms are involved in the Macau SAR). Gambling is illegal in China, with the big and fast-growing exception of state-sponsored lotteries, currently worth US$4.8 billion a year, although illegal gaming expenditures are estimated at 10 to 15 times as much, according to a recent Deutsche Bank report.

The Chinese government is aiming to cash in on the huge illegal gaming market through a vast network of video lottery terminals, and Deutsche Bank says “these measures will help lottery capture 40-50% of the illegal gambling market over the next three years”. Hon said his company had invested about 1.75 million British pounds ($3.05 million) in Guizhou, where there were currently 780 lottery sales points. These will be upgraded to give results in real time rather than be downloaded twice a day.

“So far we are involved only in Guizhou,” one of China’s poorest provinces, he said. “But we will hopefully speak to more provinces. Gaming in China has a lot of potential.” Underlining this potential, Deutsche Bank has cited the Peking University Center for Lottery Research as valuing illegal gambling activities in China – including underground casinos, slot machines, black market sports betting, and illicit lotteries – at around $75 billion. State lotteries are supposed to hand a proportion of their profits to charity and to sports development bodies, but corruption is said to be rife.

Hon said he was “taking a cautious approach” with his bank in North Korea, in which Global Group has a 70% stake and state-owned Koryo Bank has 30%. Stalinist North Korea is notoriously closed and secretive, but Hon said up to 200 foreign business people lived in Pyongyang and the country was gradually developing a market economy. He said he was “very bullish” about the future of North-South Korean economic cooperation, and stressed the potential of the Kaesong industrial zone, where a large number of South Korean companies have opened factories.

Hon noted that China’s economic reforms had been greatly boosted by overseas Chinese entrepreneurs from Hong Kong and Taiwan, who have cultural, linguistic and family ties with the mainland, and South Koreans and overseas Koreans could make a similar contribution to North Korea’s economic development.

“I keep telling my North Korean friends to make use of the huge resources and capital from South Korea,” Hon said. “Labor costs are even cheaper than China … People are well educated and have good discipline. They need the right economic policies.” Regarding North Korea’s relations with the West, Hon said: “There have been a lot of misunderstandings on both sides … There is a big gap in how they read the West and how we read them.”

Hon noted that Macau billionaire, Stanley Ho, had a casino in Pyongyang, and said that “maybe I will talk to him a bit about banking arrangements”. But he denied that he had any involvement with North Korea’s reported online lottery venture, which is aimed mainly at South Koreans. North Korea is highly puritanical and its citizens are barred from the Pyongyang casino, whose main customers are Chinese entrepreneurs and tourists.

Hon said he was motivated not simply by money, but also wanted to “make positive contributions” to impoverished Third World countries. “I came to the conclusion that you can do more good to help more people by making money first,” he added.

This was part of the reason why he founded a bank on the tiny, impoverished island of Anjouan in the Comoros in 2002. The Comoros, in which Anjouan has autonomous status, have endured 19 coups or attempted coups since gaining independence from France in 1975, and Hon wryly admitted that “at the moment the bank has caused me more problems than it is worth”. He founded the bank after he was “asked to help” by the president of Anjouan to assist in drafting new financial laws and setting up an offshore banking industry on the Indian Ocean island.

Global says it is the only company authorized by the government of Anjouan to market financial and banking licenses. But the company says some websites allege that this is not the case and that Global is challenging this in the courts.

Hon, a British citizen, was educated in Britain from the age of 13 and says on his website that in just six years he “has built up a mini conglomerate, with interests in banking, property development, gaming, finance and leisure and from which the combined turnover in 2005 is expected to reach well in excess of 1 billion British pounds. Even more remarkable is that whilst building the Global Group of Companies from scratch, he has managed to pursue so many other interests both charitable and political.”

On the charitable side, Hon was part of a team that provided North Korea with 120 wheelchairs after a large explosion on a railway line last year in which 169 people died. There was speculation, strongly denied by the North Korean government, that the explosion was a failed assassination attempt against the country’s all-powerful leader, Kim Jong-il.

On the political side, Hon is a business supporter of Britain’s governing Labour Party, and a signed photograph of Prime Minister Tony Blair “to Johnny and all at Global” is on prominent display in the company’s boardroom. In Britain, his gaming company, Betex, is seeking a listing on the Alternative Investment Market, which has a more flexible regime than the main stock exchange, while Hon is also actively seeking business partners for tourism ventures in the Caribbean. Hon said he employs 115 people worldwide, mainly in Britain but including about 10 in China and seven in North Korea.

His other interests include helping Chinese companies get a stock market listing in London. These companies span a wide range of sectors, from biotechnology to education and tourism. On his website he lists some 30 companies of which he is founder or director, and states that Global Group “is growing at a rapid rate, employing more and more staff and operating in more diverse areas than ever before. Under Johnny’s chairmanship the group is certain to go onwards and upwards.”

Hon definitely seems like a man to watch, and you never know in which exotic corner of the world he is going to turn up next.


An Employee from the Emperor Hotel in Rajin Out to Do Business in a Market Place

Monday, November 14th, 2005

Daily NK
Kim Young Jin

Employees from the Emperor Hotel in the city of Rajin in North Korea are said to make their livings by doing business in market places. The hotel is well known for its casino.

On the 13th day of this month I had an interview with a manager of the hotel, who I will call Kim Myung Chul (alias, 42 years of age) for the sake of his safety. “The hotel has had much difficulty paying wages to its employees since it closed its casino in February,” he said. “It laid off about half of its 300 employees, and even some of the remaining half had to open restaurants near the hotel or start business in market places for their livings.”

The Emperor Hotel is a five star hotel founded by the Emperor Group in Hong Kong that invested about 24 million dollars in it. It is well known for the finest casino in North Korea.

For the last two years, two high raking Chinese officials have lost a large sum of government money to the casino and the Chinese government complained to the North pressing it to close it. Thus, it was closed in February, and the hotel lost many Chinese tourists. The number of Chinese tourists had been almost 20 thousands a year before. Virtually the hotel is out of business now.

Chae Moon Ho, a former head of Traffic and Transportation Office of Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in Jilin, China squandered 3,510,000 yuan (more than 434,000 dollars) of government money in the casino and was sentenced to 8 year imprisonment at the first trial. Mr. Wang, a former superintendent of highway construction, wasted 870,000 yuan (about 107,000 dollars) of government money in the casino and was taken into custody.

After these incidents, the Chinese government had prevented travel agencies around Yanbian area from holding North Korean tourism in March this year. It lifted the ban last September.

The following is some excerpts from the interview.

– When did you start to work for the Emperor Hotel?

I have been working in the hotel since 2000. People in Rajin call it Bipa Hotel or the Five Star Hotel. When the hotel was first opened, it was run in a capitalistic way. Even hostesses from Russia and China were recruited. But they have all returned now because they could no longer get paid. It took 3 years to complete its construction. I heard that it had been intended to be a 30 story building, but it is 7 stories high because the Emperor Group cut spending. Visitors were usually foreign gamblers and those Chinese who enjoyed fish and other seafoods.

– How is business now?

Business situation became very tough after the Chinese stopped coming. Usually thousands of Chinese people visited for the summer, and Russian and Chinese gamblers constantly came and went. But since the casino was closed and the Chinese stopped coming, it has been difficult for the employees to be paid. The hotel even laid off half of its employees. At frist 300 people were recruited, but there are less than 150 employees now. Among them, less than 50, mostly janitors, cooks, Karaoche coordinators, massagists, come to the hotel to work.

– Does the owner not pay the employees?

I do not know. Even though the owner is Emperor Group from Hongkong, the employees are controlled by the Administrative Committee of Rajin city. I suppose that wages must be distributed by the civil authorities. Anyhow, I have not been able to be paid since last spring.

– What kind of people are employed in the hotel?

High ranking people were eliminated from the recruit lest they be contaminated by capitalism brought in by foreign gamblers. For example, Kim Il Sung University graduates, partisans, workers involved with law and national defense and their family members were all eliminated. Mostly tall and good looking people from Rajin were accepted.

– How are the employees paid?

At first, we were well paid. We were not rationed but received wages. Until 2000, I received 300 yuan a month. At that time, 1 yuan($0.1237) was equivalent of 25 Chosun(NK) won($0.0125), and rice was quite cheap. Hence 300 yuan made a sound pay. Moreover, we were fed three times a day and allowed to sleep in the hotel, which was considerable benefits for us. But while business was getting difficult, employees were being turned into 8.3 workers one after another. Finally, payment started to be incomplete from last February. We could just take three meals a day thanks to the money the 8.3 workers gave to the hotel.

– What is 8.3 worker?

The hotel forced some of its employees to earn money all by themselves and to give some part of it to the hotel. 8.3 worker is called so because Kim Il Sung ordered the system during a factory visit on a third day of August.

– How do 8.3 workers earm money?

Some workers opened restaurants near the hotel, and others merchandize in market places. There are people like me who are out here in China and do business with old customers. Chinese tourists like to eat fish and other seafoods in Rajin. That’s why 8.3 workers like to open seafood restaurants near the hotel calling them branch restaurants of the hotel. There are more than 10 such restaurants near the hotel. There are also a few souvenir shops. If they earn money, they give some of it to the hotel. Those who merchandize are just like that. If you give some money to the hotel every month, you are not required to go there to work.

– Does the money go to Emperor Group?

No. It goes to the Administrative Committee of Rajin city. The hotel is just a Work Place: we are not under the owner’s control. We are required to take permission from the Administrative Committee to work outside the hotel.

– Do 8.3 workers make much money?

It is advantageous for business to be an employee for the hotel. We do not pay such heavy taxes as ordinary merchandizers do. It is also easier for us to occupy stalls in market places than for ordinary merchandisers.

– What is people’s life like in Rajin recently?

Outsiders envy Rajin and Seonbong because they compose the free trade zone, but the situation is on the contrary. The government takes more from Rajin and Seonbong because of the free trade. Rice is also more expensive. They are good places for the rich to live in but not for the poor.