Archive for the ‘Hong Kong’ Category

Hong Kong rises to DPRK’s no two trading partner

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

According to the South China Morning Post:

In 2012, Hong Kong became North Korea’s No 2 trading partner with two-way trade reaching US$111 million (HK$861 million), rising 457 per cent from the year before, according to data from a South Korean trade organisation.

Last year alone, the Stalinist country exported US$58 million (HK$450m) worth of goods to Hong Kong and imported items worth nearly US$53 million (HK$411m) from the city, according to a recent report by South Korea’s government-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

The upward trend in two-way trade might be explained as a one-time jump, but experts suggest that Hong Kong may be part of the mainland China’s broader agenda for its relations with North Korea.

“Hong Kong is a tool for Sino-Korean relations because it can play certain functions in pushing forward the relationship between Beijing and North Korea,” explained Steve Chung, a professor of international relations at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The rise in trade between North Korea and Hong Kong in recent years coincides with the establishment of a joint industrial zone to be operated by Beijing and Pyongyang.

Read the full story here:
How did Hong Kong become North Korea’s No 2 trading partner?
South China Morning Post
Audrey Yoo


KCNA announces new printing joint venture company

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012


Pictured above: A KCNA image of the factory and the view from Google Earth (39.043378°, 125.728149°)

According to KCNA (2012-6-25):

Pyongyang, June 25 (KCNA) — The Printing Factory of Tongbaek Printing Joint Venture Company [동백인쇄합영공장] under the Foreign Languages Publishing House was commissioned with due ceremony on Monday.

The factory was jointly established by the Foreign Languages Publishing House of the DPRK and the Oriental Yongli Hong Kong Int’l Investment Co., Ltd. and Jiangsu Zhongcai Printing Co., Ltd. of China. The factory will produce and sell varieties of printed materials and trade marks.

Attending the ceremony were Ri Kwang Gun, chairman of the Commission for Joint Venture and Investment, officials concerned and employees of the factory, Huang Junjie, vice mayor of Danyang City, Jiangsu Province of China, personages of the two Chinese companies, Wu Shiguang, councilor in charge of culture, and officials of the Chinese embassy here.

Choe Kyong Guk, director and editor-in-chief of the Foreign Languages Publishing House, addressing the ceremony, said that technicians and builders of the two countries built the factory in a short span of time.

He expressed belief that the factory would make a positive contribution to meeting the interests of the peoples of the two countries.

Jiao Xiaoping, manager of the Tongbaek Printing Joint Venture Company, in a congratulatory speech referred to the process of the construction of the factory, stressing the need to operate the company well.

At the end of the ceremony, the participants planted trees and looked round the production processes.

A reception was given on the same day.


Hong Kong company likely to be tapped as developer Hwanggumphyong

Monday, June 20th, 2011

According to Yonhap:

A Hong Kong conglomerate is likely to be tapped as a developer of a China-North Korea joint industrial complex on a North Korean island, a Chinese-language weekly said Monday, a move seen as deepening the North’s economic reliance on its neighboring country.

Earlier this month, China and North Korea broke ground to develop Hwanggumphyong Island, which sits at the estuary of the Yalu River between two border cities, Dandong on the Chinese side and Sinuiju on the North’s side.

The Economic Observer, one of the leading economy-focused newspapers in China, said it has exclusively obtained a document showing that Sunbase International Holdings Ltd., an investment conglomerate based in Hong Kong, will win exclusive rights to develop the border island.

The group, which reportedly has direct control over total assets of over HK$60 billion (US$9.3 billion), is recognized as one of the largest property management companies in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Gunter Gao, chairman of the board of Sunbase International, visited North Korea twice last year and had high-level meetings with North Korean government officials on the economic development of the island, the report said.

The newspaper earlier reported that the 56-year-old Hong Kong tycoon met Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, before the groundbreaking ceremony of the joint economic zone. Gao is widely considered to have strong ties with politicians in mainland China.

Gao has long served as one of the Hong Kong members of the National Committee for Chinese People’s Political Consultative, a political advisory body in mainland China.

Citing unnamed sources, the weekly said the North Korean authorities preferred Hong Kong entities rather than mainland Chinese firms as developers of the joint economic zone because Hong Kong companies are more open and international.

The economic cooperation between China and North Korea comes on the heels of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s weeklong trip to China in May when he studied the neighboring country’s economic development. It was his third trip to China in just over a year.

Beijing has been trying to lure its impoverished ally to embrace the reform that lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty and helped China’s rise to become the world’s second-largest economy.

North Korea has been facing worsening food shortages and massive inflation, which has increased public anger in the country.

Read the full story hre:
Hong Kong conglomerate likely to be tapped as developer of N. Korean island: report
Kim Young-gyo


Oxfam Hong Kong assisting DPRK

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

The Pyongyang Times reports that Oxfam Hong Kong is providing farming assistance to the DPRK:

Oxfam Hong Kong is increasing aid to the DPRK’s agricultural sector.

The Hong Kong charity founded in 1976 is dedicated to helping victims of famine and natural disasters and is engaged in rendering humanitarian aid and education.

It has been giving aid to the DPRK since 1997.

In recent years it has supplied farming materials and food on several occasions via the Korean Committee for Promotion of International Trade to the Ryonghyon Cooperative Farm in Suan County, North Hwanghae Province and other farms.

The farms and the KCPIT are very grateful to the Hong Kong charity for their kind-hearted aid and hope for a wider range of relief activities.

The Oxfam Hong Kong webpage is here. I cannot find any information on their projects in the DPRK.


DPRK overseas financial organizations

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

They have been in the news quite a bit recently.

According to the Donga Ilbo:

The U.S. has reportedly confirmed that nine of the 15 financial institutions North Korea operates overseas are involved in illegal activity.

Accordingly, the nine and more than 20 other institutions and individuals, including financiers who oversee the institutions, will be subject to Washington’s new financial sanctions announced against Pyongyang.

A government source in Seoul said Wednesday, “The U.S. government and intelligence are pointing to Kim Tong Myong, president of Danchon Commercial Bank of the North. The bank helped to amass slush funds overseas for the North.”

“Washington judges that organizations subject to Executive Order 13382, which regulates weapons of mass destruction, are also involved in other activities, including the illegal trade of luxury goods and money laundering. The U.S. is considering including many such organizations in the new executive order.”

Under Executive Order 13382, three financial institutions and 18 trading companies were subject to financial sanctions. The imminent addition of six more North Korean financial institutions abroad will further put the Stalinist country in a bind.

On Washington’s plan to impose additional sanctions against Pyongyang, South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said, “Measures designed to impose specific sanctions on organizations and individuals and freeze assets will come in two weeks.”

And according to the Choson Ilbo:

Hong Kong financial authorities are inspecting all banks in the territory to find out if North Korea’s Taepung International Investment Group has opened secret accounts there. Taepung has the unenviable task of attracting foreign investment to the North.

According to information obtained by the Chosun Ilbo, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in late July asked banks to report no later than Aug. 3, if they had engaged in “any kind of transactions” with four companies over the past six years.

The four are Taepung International Investment Hong Kong, Taepung International Investment Holdings Virgin Islands, Taepung International Investment Group, and Taifung (Taepung’s Chinese pronunciation) International Investment Group.

This was the first time Taepung has been targeted for financial sanctions by a third country.

A source in Hong Kong said it seems authorities have asked all Hong Kong branches of about 190 banks from the U.S., Europe and Asia for data about the four Taepung affiliates and two Iranian firms.

Taepung Hong Kong is believed to be a paper company. In April it registered at Rm.# 2508, Lippo Centre, 89 Queensway, Hong Kong, but the only office at the address is a local law firm.

Read the full stories here:
US: 9 Illegal NK Financial Entities Abroad Confirmed
Donga Ilbo

Hong Kong Looks for Secret N.Korean Accounts
Choson Ilbo


Luxembourg to track DPRK bank accounts

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

According to the Choson Ilbo:

Luxembourg has promised to cooperate with UN and U.S. financial sanctions against North Korea, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday.

A spokesman for Luxembourg’s Finance Ministry told RFA that the country is closely watching for any illegal activities by the North using offshore accounts and will take “appropriate legal steps” if it finds them.

He claimed Luxembourg regularly updates domestic laws in accordance with international norms to monitor and punish those involved in illegal activities.

The country is committed to implementing sanctions against the North under UN Security Council Resolution 1874, he added.

In March, the Daily Telegraph said North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has a US$4 billion slush fund stashed away abroad in case he has to flee the North. Kim’s operatives “withdrew the money — in cash, in order not to leave a paper trail — and transferred it to banks in Luxembourg,” it said.

But at the time, the office of the grand duchy’s prime minister said it had no information about North Korean financial assets and there was no need to check. Although Luxembourg is a member of the EU, it is not easy to keep track of bank accounts there because it has a different bank payment and settlement system from other members.

On July 22, Hong Kong started a legal review of Taepung International Investment Group, a North Korean firm founded to attract foreign capital, and other North Korean companies.

Open Radio for North Korea on Wednesday quoted a North Korean source as saying the country’s former ambassador to Switzerland Ri Chol returned to the North in March to make sure Kim Jong-il’s secret accounts overseas are safely handed over to Kim Jong-un, his son and heir apparent.

Read the full story here:
Luxembourg to Help Track N.Korean Bank Accounts
Choson Ilbo


Complex organization of North Korean companies

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

According ot the Choson Ilbo:

Hong Kong government investigators have inspected an office in the territory belonging to North Korea’s Taepung International Investment Group as part of U.S.-led financial sanctions against North Korea. Taepung is charged with attracting foreign investment to the North.

Investigators say that the company registered itself under the address Rm.# 2508, Lippo Centre, Hong Kong with the authorities, but the only office at that address is the Law Office of Ho, Wong and Wong.

Companies registry documents obtained by the Chosun Ilbo show a complicated network of related businesses. It was established in April 2006 with parent company Taepung International Investment Holdings owning all of its shares. Taepung is capitalized at 20 million Hong Kong dollars (W3.2 billion).

It registered a company called Saiying, also listed at the Lippo Centre address, as its corporate secretary, which serves as a bridge with the Hong Kong government. China Deals Finder, which was in turn registered as the corporate secretary of Saiying, also has the same address.

The parent companies of both Saiying and CDF are registered under the same address in tax haven the Virgin Islands. They are paper companies capitalized at 50,000 and 10,000 dollars respectively and have shifted addresses, board of directors and secretaries several times. The law office of Ho, Wong and Wong handled the reporting of each change.

“It appears that Taepung turned to the aid of a legal expert to conceal the identity of its true owner and make it difficult to track its financial activities,” said a financial expert in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong government has stressed its intend to comply with UN resolutions  According to Yonhap:

The government of Hong Kong affirmed its commitment Friday to continue implementing punitive U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions.

“Hong Kong will continue to exercise vigilance in enforcing our regulation to effectively implement the United Nations Security Coucil sanctions against DPRK,” Josephine Lo, an official at the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau of the Hong Kong government, told Yonhap News, using the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Our law enforcement agencies will take appropriate actions on those found in violation of the laws,” she said.

The comment was made after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement Wednesday that the U.S. will hit North Korea with a new set of sanctions to punish it for its sinking of a South Korean warship and prevent it from further provocations.

Those sanctions will “strengthen our enforcement of U.N. Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874″ adopted after North Korea’s first and second nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, Clinton said at a joint press conference in Seoul after a meeting with South Korea’s foreign and defense ministers.

Hong Kong legislated what is called the U.N. Sanctions Regulation in June 2007 to implement the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, according to Lo.

In January, Hong Kong amended the regulation to implement the new and expanded sanctions against North Korea under the Security Council Resolution 1874, she said.

A source here said earlier Friday that the United States has identified about 200 bank accounts with links to North Korea, and that the country is expected to freeze some 100 of those suspected of being used for weapons exports and other illicit purposes banned under U.N. resolutions.

The U.S. State Department said the U.S. will carry out new sanctions within two weeks to cut off money from illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and counterfeit currency or luxury goods flowing into the North Korean leadership.

North Korea has bristled at the announcement of new sanctions and Seoul’s plan to conduct large-scale joint naval exercises with the U.S., claiming the moves pose grave threats to regional peace.

Read the full stories here:
Probe Reveals Elusive Structure of N.Korean Company
Choson Ilbo

Hong Kong to continue implementing U.N. sanctions on N. Korea
Kim Young-gyo


Update: Hong Kong detention of DPRK ship

Friday, January 5th, 2007

Joong Ang Daily
Choi Hyung-kyu

A North Korean cargo ship detained here last October for safety violations is apparently going to be released within a few days, according to remarks by the ship’s captain.

The seafarer, who refused to give his name, told a reporter Wednesday that he expected to sail his ship, the Kang Nam, back to North Korea in two or three days.

An official at the ship’s agency here, Topping Enterprise, said the payment for repairs required to meet Hong Kong safety standards had been received recently, allowing port officials to release the ship.

Unsaid by either the captain or the agent was that the underlying reason for the ship’s detention in the first place was a search for contraband. The decision to search the ship was in line with recent United Nations sanctions on shipments by North Korea of sensitive military or nuclear-related cargo.

The sanctions also include a ban on trade in luxury goods with North Korea.

Seoul has been urged to join a U.S.-led effort to tighten enforcement of the ban on those types of North Korean international commerce, but has refused for fear of further straining North-South Korea relations.

The ship’s captain refused to say whether his ship had been searched for material prohibited under the terms of the UN sanctions resolution, but was defiant in sending a political message.

“The world is clamping down on us, but we can overcome that. I hope that the two Koreas can reconcile, and let’s hope that in the new year things similar to this will not happen again,” he said.

The ship’s crew had been fed by the vessel’s Hong Kong agents during their enforced stay tied up to a dock in this capitalist mecca, but had refused any other kind of outside help while in port.

The cost of the necessary repairs and port charges for the 70-day stay were estimated at about $40,000.

Hong Kong detains second N. Korean ship in week for safety violations

Hong Kong’s marine inspectors have detained another North Korean cargo ship this week for safety violations, officials said Friday.

The officials from the Hong Kong Customs and Marine Department said the North Korean vessel, Kang Nam 5, has been barred from leaving the port after its inspectors found about a dozen safety violations Thursday. Details of the suspected violations were not available.

The vessel was the second North Korean cargo ship detained in Hong Kong this week after a 2,000-ton freighter, Kang Nam 1, was placed under detention Monday for 25 reported safety violations, including faulty navigational and fire-fighting equipment and outdated nautical charts.

The measures prompted wide speculations whether Hong Kong, or China, was beginning to put pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea as they followed a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on countries to inspect cargo leaving or arriving in the communist North to prevent transfer of any equipment, material and items related to missile or weapons of mass destruction programs.

The Hong Kong inspectors dismissed such speculations, saying the detentions were the result of their routine inspections.

“The decision to detain the North Korean ship is part of routine procedures based on port safety regulations,” the Hong Kong government said.

Including the Kang Nam 5, seven North Korean vessels have been detained this year, mostly for safety violations, according to the officials. A total of 10 North Korean ships have been inspected this year.

The latest North Korean ship to undergo safety inspections arrived without cargo, according to the officials.


Luxuries for North’s elite keep on flowing

Monday, December 18th, 2006

Joong Ang Daily

Despite United Nations sanctions aimed at preventing the North Korean government from buying luxury goods for its ruling class, government sources here said a North Korean trading company is still busy providing Kim Jong-il loyalists with their perquisites.

Tian Ming Trading Company, in the center of this former Portuguese enclave now with the same China-affiliated status as Hong Kong, says its main business line is carpets, and little more. Three office workers said there were no North Koreans at the company and that it has never traded with North Korea. The company’s president was out of town on business, they said.

But a source with close ties to the trading economy here said that Park Su-dok, a 53-year-old North Korean, is in Macao and obtained a visa as an employee of the company.

Another source said, “Tian Ming is a joint venture by North Korean and Hong Kong investors, and its main business is buying luxury goods from Hong Kong for shipment to North Korea.” He added that Tian Ming’s president, a Hong Kong resident, is buying luxury watches, gold products and expensive liquor at North Korea’s request, using a Hong Kong branch office for the purpose.

Other Macao government officials said 18 North Korean firms were registered in Macao as of late November, and 115 North Koreans carry Macao visas as employees. Twenty have become Macao citizens, they added.

Since Washington threatened to impose sanctions on Banco Delta Asia here, allegedly for helping North Korea launder cash from its alleged dubious business lines, some of those companies have shut down. Ten are still in limited operation, however, these government sources said.

Separately, a South Korean banker in Hong Kong told the Joong-Ang Ilbo that a North Korean businessman had visited him in an attempt to sell gold bars through one of the South Korean bank branches in Hong Kong.

The banker reportedly spurned the overture, although the transaction would not have violated any South Korean laws or regulations on North-South dealings. He said he simply did not want to get involved in such a deal given the international attention being paid to commercial dealings with North Korea. The banker suggested that the offer may have been a sign of the foreign currency problems North Korea is facing because of the UN sanctions and U.S. pressure on financial dealings with North Korea.

Banco Delta Asia has said that between 2003 and 2005, it had sold 9.2 tons of gold bars that it had purchased from the North, where gold production is estimated to be about 25 tons per year, mostly for export.

Wall Street Journal
Gordon Fairlcough, p.A1

Close-Out Sale: North Korea’s Elite Shop While They Can

A North Korean businesswoman with heavy makeup and a bouffant hairdo studied herself in a mirror as she modeled fur-lined leather coats at a small store in [Dandong, China] this frigid northeast border city.

During a three-day excursion late last month, the woman also tried on shoes and looked at large-screen television sets before buying furniture and fresh fruit and heading home to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city.

The United Nations has called for a crackdown on luxury-goods shipments to North Korea as a way of pressuring the country to drop its atomic-weapons programs, which came under new fire after an October nuclear test.

If anything, the uncertainty about the flow of fancy goods appears to have whetted the appetites of some privileged North Koreans — whose impoverished country cultivates a Spartan socialist image.

In Dandong, North Koreans, many wearing lapel pins with a picture of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il Sung, stroll through hotels and department stores. Signs are often written in Korean, with storekeepers advertising computers, karaoke machines and the erectile-dysfunction drugs Viagra and Cialis.

A few North Koreans have bought new cars at a Toyota dealership near the Dandong customs checkpoint, according to a salesman. One man paid about $50,000 in cash for a luxury sedan.

Gold is also gaining a following. Wang Xiaoju, a saleswoman at the jewelry counter at Xin Yi Bai Department Store, says North Korean women come in nearly every day, mostly to buy gold chains and other gold jewelry.

Women from the North also are frequent visitors to a riverfront spa, favoring milk baths and massages, according to staff there. A saleswoman at the Xin Yi Bai L’Oreal counter says North Koreans are regular customers. Among the big sellers: body sculpting cream for women who want to look thinner.

In the first 10 months of this year, Chinese exports of fur coats and fake furs to North Korea soared more than sevenfold from the year-earlier period, according to Chinese Customs figures. Exports of televisions and other consumer electronics were up 77%, while perfumes and cosmetics were up 10%.

Some North Koreans are even buying real estate in Dandong. One high-rise building, where three bedroom apartments go for nearly $100,000 each, has sweeping views of a decrepit North Korean village with crumbling cinder-block houses across the border. A North Korean buyer recently purchased one of the units with cash, according to the building’s sales agent.

“Life is quite comfortable” for senior party members, military officers and traders, who have prospered despite widespread shortages of food, fuel and medicine in North Korea, says Pak Yong Ho, a former high-ranking North Korean official who defected to South Korea two years ago.

North Korea’s Communist Party has long had overseas agents in Macau, Switzerland and elsewhere dedicated to maintaining supplies of luxuries for top military and government personnel, according to former North Korean officials. Their jobs, in the wake of the U.N. sanctions, could get much harder.

The U.N. so far has let individual countries decide which high-end products to block. Washington has barred U.S. companies from selling everything from iPods to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. But that move was largely symbolic, as there is very little direct trade between the U.S. and North Korea.

Japan, which has for decades been a source of luxuries for the North Korean ruling class, has banned exports of 24 fancy products from caviar and gems to watches and art.

But the key to whether the sanctions will work is in the hands of China, North Korea’s largest trading partner.

A steel-girder bridge here spans the Yalu River, connecting Dandong to the city of Sinuiju in North Korea. That has helped Dandong, whose name means “Red East,” become a popular shopping destination for North Koreans with money. It is unclear how much that will change because of the sanctions.

So far, China hasn’t disclosed what specific kinds of high-end exports — TVs or luxury automobiles, for instance — it will block. A Chinese foreign-ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, has said the list “should not be allowed to impact normal trade transactions” between the socialist neighbors.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, whose own taste for expensive French cognac and other imported luxuries is well known, uses money and goods liberally in an effort to buy the loyalty of the elite, according to U.S. and South Korean officials. Some of these officials say that depriving the ruling class of its creature comforts could alienate them from Mr. Kim, long known as “Dear Leader.”

But many North Korea watchers and North Korean defectors doubt that the elite would revolt against Mr. Kim’s government, because their fates are so closely tied to his now. “Under this regime, the privileged have had a very good life,” says Kim Dok Hong, the second-highest North Korean official to defect. “If the regime collapses, the people they’ve mistreated will be looking for revenge.”

At the peak of the famine that killed more than a million North Koreans in the mid-1990s, Mr. Pak, the former government official, says his parents weren’t short of food. Their home had three refrigerators regularly replenished with imported provisions by the Communist Party. Mr. Pak uses a pseudonym to protect family members still in the North from government retribution.

“The elites have had more freedom to do their own business” since economic overhauls in 2002, says Yang Chang Seok, a senior official at South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which oversees relations with the North. “People have earned a lot of money from trading.”

These days in Pyongyang, members of the ruling class are ferried around in imported cars and live in well-appointed — and well-guarded — apartment complexes. Their children race around city parks on in-line skates and play American computer games.

Says Mr. Pak: “If you can afford to pay, there’s nothing you can’t get.”


Coming in From the Cold

Thursday, October 25th, 2001

Bertil Lintner
Suh-Kyung Yoon

Pak Ku Po and his companion would not make it in international business circles.  They have no name cards and one of them does not even want to give his name. They claim they know nothing about the place where they are based–”we’re just newcomers here”–but promise to be more forthcoming “the next time we meet.”  Their secretiveness is perhaps understandable as they work for Zokwang Trading, a state-owned North Korean company in Macau, which in the past has been accused of being involved in the distribution of counterfeit money, arms smuggling and terrorist training. North Korea had been accused of state-sponsored terrorism long before Afghanistan decided to give shelter to Osama bin Laden and the seeds of the present conflict in Central Asia were sown.

But now things are supposed to have changed, and Zokwang and other North Korean trading companies–and there are many of them throughout East Asia–claim they are legitimate business operations. Pak, for instance, says that Zokwang is involved mainly in the export of North Korean ginseng to Asian countries, and sweaters and other knitwear to France and Canada. Over the past few years, North Korea has embarked on a vigorous commercial drive across the globe, and, for the first time, it is making serious attempts to attract foreign investment. Is Pyongyang finally turning to capitalism to save the world’s last Stalinist state?

The main question is whether this change in attitude will, in the long run, also change North Korea’s economy and society–as similar initiatives by the Chinese communists in the late 1970s have begun to transform China. Or will more hard currency in the state’s coffers only serve to delay the collapse of one of the world’s most atavistic regimes, thus prolonging the suffering of the North Korean people? And have North Korean businesses overseas really become legitimate? Or are they still peddling fake bank notes, drugs and ballistic-missile technology? This is an important issue going forward because the United States has made it clear it will track down all sources of funding for terrorists in future–and now that other sources are drying up,lesser-known alternatives may come into vogue.

There is little doubt that the sale of ballistic-missile technology in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime and, more generally, the export of weapons to terrorist organizations and the states that harbour them, is far more lucrative than all of Pyongyang’s legitimate commercial ventures put together. But it is equally true that the international war on terrorism will only make such sales more difficult with every passing day.

Ri To Sop, North Korean consul general at the recently established diplomatic mission in Hong Kong, is firm in his assurances. “Our Dear Leader has told us that this is a new millennium, and that we should not do things in the old way. There will be changes. Just wait and see,” he says. The “Dear Leader,” North Korea’s reclusive supremo, Kim Jong Il, visited China in May this year, where his hosts took him to see the stock exchange in Shanghai. In July, he embarked on a 10-day epic train journey through Siberia to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where he visited sites commemorating the 1917 communist revolution, but also held talks with Russia’s new, born-again capitalist leadership. The trip was hailed by South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung Soo: “[This is] a very positive development because it is an indication that North Korea is willing to open up.”

The main force behind North Korea’s commercial drive is, perhaps not surprisingly, the country’s powerful military. In June, a North Korean defector described the North Korean People’s Army as the country’s biggest “foreign-exchange earner.” From early spring this year, servicemen have been made to engage in a variety of export-oriented projects including mushroom harvesting, gold mining, medicinal-herb collection and crab fishing.

The ruling Korean Workers’ Party is also reported to be operating more than 40 restaurants in six countries as a means of raising hard currency. The first North Korean eatery opened in Austria as early as in March 1986, but in recent years more have followed in China, Russia and Indonesia. According to South Korean intelligence, North Korea will soon open restaurants also in Bulgaria and Australia.

Even more imaginatively, the Dongkong Foreign Trade Corporation in the Chinese city of Dandong, just across the border from North Korea, acquired in September the exclusive right to sell North Korean medicines in the international market–including a brand called Cheongchun No. 1, which is a home-made North Korean version of Viagra.

In Thailand, a North Korean-owned company, Wolmyongsan Progress Joint Venture, has for years been engaged in mining activities near the Burmese border in Kanchanaburi, west of Bangkok, while Kosun Import-Export, which is based in the Thai capital itself, is permitted to trade in rice, rubber, paper, tapioca and clothing.  Kosun is located in a discreet office on the top floor of an eight-storey building in a Bangkok suburb. The company is also involved in property, apparently owning the building and renting out flats and office space.

At first glance, it seems that North Korea’s dive into the world of capitalism is paying off. North Korea does not release any trade or economic figures, but according to data collected by South Korea’s state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, or Kotra, from the North’s main trading partners–China, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong–its external trade in 2000 jumped by 33.1% to $1.96 billion from a year earlier.  It was the second straight year that North Korea saw its trade volume expand and that, too, at a much higher rate than the modest 2.6% increase in 1999.

Kotra is now actively promoting more trade with North Korea. In April this year, the agency published a fact book on how to do business in the Stalinist state, complete with useful phone numbers in Pyongyang and the complete text, in English, of all new laws relating to foreign trade and investment. South Korea’s interest in the development of the impoverished north is understandable. Since South Korean President Kim Dae Jung undertook his historic journey to Pyongyang in June last year, the question of a reunification of the Korean peninsula has become much more urgent–and the South Koreans are painfully aware of the wide income gap between the North and the South.

“Unless we help North Korea develop and strengthen its economy, both countries would collapse if they were reunited,” says a South Korean diplomat on condition of anonymity. “The South would not be able to take care of the North. The gap is just too wide today.” The cost of reunification was first discussed in South Korea shortly after East and West Germany–at a tremendous price–became one country in 1990. According to Marcus Noland, a researcher at the Institute for International Economics, Washington, South Korea would have to invest as much as $3.17 trillion in order to avoid an abrupt influx of people to the South and to upgrade living standards in the North–significantly more than West Germany had to pay to raise living standards in East Germany to an acceptable level.

A closer look at Kotra’s upbeat trade figures for North Korea also reveals a somewhat less rosy picture. In 2000, North Korea exported $556 million worth of machinery and chemical goods–while importing $1.4 billion worth of food, computers and vehicles. The North’s perennial trade deficit is expected to worsen this year as the country has to increase imports of rice, corn and other grains. According to the Bank of Korea, North Korea’s foreign debt totals $12.3 billion and Pyongyang’s credit rating is the lowest in the world.

There is no doubt that it is the dire straits that North Korea has found itself in which have forced its government to resort to commerce, not any real change of mind in the inviolability of the country’s austere socialist system. According to a study by Heather Smith and Yiping Huang of the Australian National University, the present food crisis in North Korea was caused by the disruption in trading ties with former communist allies in the late 1980s. The former Soviet Union ceased providing aid in 1987. More devastatingly, they emphasize, both the former Soviet Union in 1990 and China in 1993 demanded that North Korea pay standard international prices for goods, and that it pay in hard currency rather than through barter trade, as previously had been the case. This affected petroleum imports to the degree that they declined from 506,000 tonnes in 1989 to 30,000 tonnes in 1992.

Subsequently, North Korea embarked on its overseas capitalist ventures. According to a Western diplomat who follows developments in North Korea, the country’s embassies abroad were mobilized to raise badly needed foreign exchange. This, he says, was done partly in the name of the diplomats themselves, or through locally established trading companies, which in reality are offshoots of bigger, Pyongyang-based state trading corporations. “Not only do the embassies have to be self-sufficient, they are also expected to send money back to the government in Pyongyang,” the diplomat says. “How they raise money is immaterial. It can be by legal or illegal means. And it’s often done by abusing diplomatic privileges.”

The sad truth is that the North Koreans are desperate and prepared to do anything to make money, and Bangkok seems to be emerging as a centre for many of their activities. Western intelligence officials based in the Thai capital are aware of the import and sale of luxury cars, which are brought in duty-free by North Korean diplomats. Another way of raising money is to insure a cargo consignment at a disproportionate level, and then report the goods lost. “This is usually done through international insurance markets, and there is little the companies can do but to pay up,” the diplomat says.

And earlier this year, fake $100 notes turned up in Bangkok. The police believed that the North Korean embassy was responsible as some of its diplomats were caught trying to deposit the forgeries in local banks. The North Korean diplomats were warned not to try it again. In a more novel enterprise, the North Koreans in Bangkok were reported to be buying second-hand mobile phones–and sending them in diplomatic pouches to Bangladesh, where they were resold to customers who cannot afford new ones.

And even where businesses tend to be more legitimate, North Korea has managed to attract some rather unusual investors. As early as 1991, the North Koreans established a “free economic and trade zone” in Rajin-Sonbong along the Tumen River near the border with China and Russia. Some 746 square kilometres were set aside for “foreign capitalists”–but there have been very few takers apart from pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans from Japan, who have invested because of patriotic duty rather than any expectations of quick returns. In fact, there is only one major foreign investor in the entire zone: Hong Kong entrepreneur Albert Yeung Sau Shing, who controls the Emperor Group, which has interests in gold, securities, property and entertainment in Hong Kong and China as well as a banking venture in Cambodia.

In October 1999, Yeung opened the $180 million Seaview Casino Hotel in Rajin-Sonbong. Although locals are banned from entering the establishment, the Emperor Group is betting that wealthy Chinese and Russians will come there to gamble. The casino has 52 slot machines and 16 gaming tables offering everything from blackjack and baccarat to roulette. In Hong Kong, Yeung is best remembered for his acquittal at his dramatic trial for criminal intimidation in 1995 when all five witnesses called by the prosecution testified that they did not remember anything. Yeung was accused of having kept a former employee prisoner after threatening to break his leg. Even the victim himself said he could not remember what had happened.

In the same year, Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho also opened a casino in North Korea, but in the capital itself. Ho’s $30 million Casino Pyongyang is located in the Yanggakdo Hotel, where his partner is Macau businessman Wong Sing-wa. His company, the Talented Dragon Investment Firm, in 1990 became Pyongyang’s unofficial consulate in Macau with authority to issue North Korean visas.

Wong, who has interests in several Macau casinos, made headlines in early 1998, when a Lisbon-based weekly newspaper, the Independent, protested over his presence in a delegation from Macau that was being received by the Portuguese president. The paper cited a Macau official as saying that Wong had “no criminal record, but we have registered information that links him to organized crime” in Macau.

With such business partners, it is obvious that the North Koreans have a long way to go before they acquire a better understanding of how capitalism really works. Nor has North Korea, despite its efforts, managed to attract a large number of new investors.  In July this year, a delegation of representatives from 17 Hong Kong companies went to North Korea on a trip initiated by the new consulate in the special administrative region. But though they showed some interest, no commitments were made.

In October, the Singapore Confederation of Industry sent a 25-member delegation to North Korea to look into business opportunities, but little investment is expected from there as well. In recent years, only one Singapore company, Maxgro Holdings, has concluded a joint-venture agreement with North Korea. Maxgro intends to plant 80 million paulownia trees on 20,000 hectares of state-owned land and the project is meant to produce wood for furniture, veneers and musical instruments. But at a value of only $23 million, it is hardly going to turn things around in North Korea.

And, as the fake dollars in circulation in Bangkok show, old habits die hard. In fact, North Korea’s main export item remains ballistic-missile technology. There are especially two North Korean companies that have attracted the attention of Western diplomats: the Changgwang Sinyong Corporation and the Lyongaksan General Trading Company.

In the 1990s, Changgwang was sanctioned by the U.S. government for exporting ballistic-missile technology to Pakistan. In July this year, Changgwang was once again sanctioned by Washington, this time for providing Iran with the same technology. According to Western diplomats, Lyongaksan, which like Changgwang is controlled by the North Korean military, sends people under commercial cover to countries such as Syria and Libya, where they in reality sell weapons systems. According to a report which the Seoul-based Korean Institute for Defence Analyses released in April, North Korea has exported at least 540 missiles to Libya, Iraq and other Middle East countries since 1985.

Libya recently bought 50 Rodong-1 missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometres. Cash-starved North Korea has not hesitated to sell weapons to whoever wants to buy them, including terrorist groups. A video of an attack last year by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on a Sri Lankan navy vessel shows speedboats which appeared to be of North Korean origin. The rebels also appeared to be using a North Korean variant of the Russian 107 millimetre Katysha rocket launcher. And in late 1990, North Korea sold Burma 20 million rounds of 7.62 millimetre rifle ammunition, which intelligence sources say ended up in the hands of the United Wa State Army, a drug-trafficking group which is active in the Burmese sector of the golden triangle.

While the world is focusing on the terrorist threat from Afghanistan, North Korea’s potential for mischief has been almost overlooked. But in testimony on April 17 this year, Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin warned: “North Korea’s challenge to regional and global security is magnified by two . . . factors . . . first the North’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, and its readiness–and eagerness–to become missile salesman to the world. And second, the economic and humanitarian disaster that has afflicted the people of the North–a catastrophe whose effects will endure for generations, no matter how the Korean situation finally plays out.”

Unlike North Korea’s more mainstream trading companies, its sale of ballistic-missile technology and military hardware raises millions of dollars, which–minus commissions for the North Korean “businessmen” in the field–flow back into Pyongyang’s coffers. “There is no evidence to suggest that this money is used to put food upon the tables of North Korea’s starving people,” quips a Western diplomat.

North Korea, which depends on international aid to feed its people, has imported $340 million worth of military hardware over the past decade, according to South Korean security officials. This may be less in absolute terms than what South Korea spends on its military. But the much-poorer North spends 14.3% of the country’s GDP on its military compared to the 3.1% spent by the South.

So, for the time being, missiles rather than mushrooms make up the backbone of the North Korea’s exports. If some capitalist seeds have been sown during the present drive to shore up the economy, it will take some time for a new business mentality to emerge. Kim Jong Il, it seems, is not yet about to become another Deng Xiaoping.  But in a world ever more concerned with the spread of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, states that are known, or suspected, to possess them will find themselves facing intense scrutiny–if not outright isolation. North Korea, thus, has very good reason to come in from the cold.