Archive for the ‘Libya’ Category

North Korean oil tanker in Lybia (UPDATED)

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

UPDATE 4 (2014-3-17): US Navy Seals have boarded the Morning Glory.According to the BBC:

The raid by Navy Seals took place in international waters south of Cyprus, said spokesman Rear Adm John Kirby.

The Morning Glory’s evasion of a naval blockade at the eastern port of Sidra prompted Libya’s parliament to sack Prime Minister Ali Zeidan last week.

The oil terminal has been under the control of militia wanting autonomy for eastern Libya since July 2013.

Meanwhile, there has been a deadly attack on the barracks in the main eastern city of Benghazi.

This was their first attempt to export oil from rebel-held areas. It is not clear where the tanker was headed.

Adm Kirby said the operation had been authorised by President Barack Obama and that no-one had been hurt.

“The Morning Glory is carrying a cargo of oil owned by the Libyan government National Oil Company. The ship and its cargo were illicitly obtained,” he said, adding that it would now be returned to a Libyan port.

The vessel was flagged in North Korea but officials in Pyongyang said it had been deregistered because of the incident.

It was said to have been operated by an Egyptian company.

More in the Washington Post here.

See Marcus Noland’s comments here.

UPDATE 3 (2014-3-13): Morning Glory is on the run! According to The Diplomat:

…The Libyan government didn’t take kindly to this and threatened to attack the tanker, threatening airstrikes against it. Eventually, the tanker was intercepted and taken to Misrata where it was held by Libyan warships.

Remarkably, the North Korean tanker managed to escape its capture by the Libyan fleet in the middle of the night. It made its escape when the weather forced the smaller Libyan warships and patrol boats to sail close to the coast, leaving a gap in the convoy guarding the tanker. The Morning Glory made a run for the open seas and is now confirmed to be back in international waters according to Mohammad Hitab a spokesman for Libya’s al-Waha Oil Company, the state-run company running the Es Sider port.

It remains unknown the extent to which North Korea is communicating with Libya’s federalist rebels. In the case of the oil sale, the rebels were looking for buyers willing to purchase risky oil at rates far below the asking market price. Given North Korea’s energy situation, it appeared to be one of the few buyers interested in the deal. A report from the Libya Herald earlier this week noted that members of the federalist rebels were spotted on board the Morning Glory prior to its attempted departure from Es Sider port.

The tanker’s escape resulted in a no confidence vote on Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s leadership in Libya. Zeidan lost the vote and had his travel barred. Libyan Defense Minister Abdallah al-Thinni was sworn in on Tuesday evening, according to Reuters.

The United States Department of State issued a statement where it said it was “deeply concerned by reports that a vessel sailing under the name Morning Glory is loading a cargo of illicitly obtained oil at the Libyan port of As-Sidra.” The statement does not mention North Korea but notes that the Morning Glory‘s ”action is counter to law and amounts to theft from the Libyan people.” The Italian Navy had reportedly assisted the Libyans in intercepting the Morning Glory but has since withdrawn from attempting to prevent the ship from leaving the Mediterranean.

UPDATE 2 (2014-3-12): Here is the full statement from KCNA on the tanker:

Spokesman for Maritime Administration of DPRK on “Oil Tanker Incident” in Libya

Pyongyang, March 12 (KCNA) — A spokesman for the Maritime Administration of the DPRK Wednesday gave the following answer to the question raised by KCNA in connection with the recent DPRK-flagged “oil tanker incident” which occurred in Libya:

On March 8 the government of Libya informed the DPRK of the fact that the DPRK-flagged oil tanker Morning Glory made an oil contract with an individual armed group in Libya and illegally entered a port under the control of the group in the eastern part of Libya, and urged the DPRK to take a necessary measure for settling it through a formal channel.

As far as the oil tanker is concerned, it is a ship run by the Golden East Logistics Company in Alexandria, Egypt and is allowed to temporarily use the DPRK flag for six months in accordance with the contract made by the company with the DPRK at the end of February.

Right after being informed of the fact by the Libyan side, the DPRK strongly blamed the company side for the violation of the contract and demanded it let the ship leave the port at once without loading oil.

In addition to it, the DPRK formally notified the Libyan government and the International Maritime Organization that it cancelled and deleted the ship’s DPRK registry and invalidated all the certificates as the ship violated the DPRK’s law on the registry of ships and the contract that prohibited it from transporting contraband cargo and entering the warring, dispute-torn or natural disaster-affected areas.

Therefore, the ship has nothing to do with the DPRK at present and it has no responsibility whatsoever as regards the ship.

What matters is that some foreign media are making much fuss, deliberately linking the case with the DPRK, claiming that “the north Korean ship tried to purchase oil from Libya in an illegal manner” and “the government force of Libya opened fire on the north Korean flagged oil tanker.”

Some forces are misleading the public opinion, persistently linking the issue with the DPRK. This is obviously aimed at achieving a sinister political purpose to tarnish its image.

They should clearly know that with neither false propaganda nor mud-slinging can they damage the image of the dignified DPRK.

The AP reports on proof the DPRK provided to the western media to back up its claims:

North Korea offers its flag to foreign-owned ships in the same way as a number of other countries do.

Jon provided a document he said was the official deletion of the Morning Glory from the Maritime Administration’s registry. He also showed email correspondence he said was from IHS Maritime in London, a company that manages shipping information, that purportedly acknowledged the deletion of a vessel from the North Korean registry.

UPDATE 1 (2014-3-12): The DPRK has denied it owns the ship. According to the Wall Street Journal:

North Korea denied on Thursday it was illegally exporting oil from rebel-controlled eastern Libya, claiming that an Egyptian company was operating a North Korean flagged oil tanker in the center of an armed standoff since Saturday.

North Korea said it had revoked the registry of the tanker, named “Morning Glory,” and demanded that Alexandria-based Golden East Logistics Company leave al-Sidra port without loading oil.

The tanker, carrying at least 234,000 barrels of crude oil, sailed from a rebel-controlled port into international waters on Tuesday.

A contract signed by North Korea with the Egyptian company prohibits the tanker from transporting contraband cargo and entering war or disaster zones, North Korea said through a report in its state media.

“The ship has nothing to do with the DPRK at present and it (North Korea) has no responsibility whatsoever as regards the ship,” the report said, using the abbreviation of country’s official name Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Golden East Logistics Company couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

The presence of a North Korean-flagged vessel in the Mediterranean is very unusual, although the country has been involved in trading arms in the region. Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at Seoul-based think tank Sejong Institute, said the rebels may have offered oil to North Korea at a fraction of market prices.

ORIGINAL POST (2014-3-6): According to IBT:

A North Korean oil tanker has tried to dock at Libya’s Es-Sider port which has been seized by armed protesters, Reuters reports.

It has not yet been confirmed whether the tanker wanted to take oil from the protesters, who have threatened to sell it independently unless they get political autonomy from Tripoli and a greater share of oil revenues, according to Libyan officials.

“The tanker came to Es-Sider but did not load oil,” said an official at the state-owned Waha Oil Co, which operates the port and connecting oilfields.

An official at National Oil Corp (NOC), which owns Waha, said he did not know whether the protesters, led by former militia leader Ibrahim Jathran, had tried to attract buyers with the tanker but said: “We know they have been trying to sell oil.”

It is extremely unusual for a North Korean-flagged oil tanker to operate in the Mediterranean region, shipping sources said.

Jathran’s group seized three oil ports which accounted for 600,000 barrels per day of export, before the protests started in 2013.

The Libyan government has tried to end the protests but little progress has been made so far.

Libya’s defence minister held talks with protesters blocking the 340,000-bpd El Sharara oilfield in the south, but NOC has not confirmed whether it will reopen in the near future.

The strikers are also demanding national identity cards and a local council; the ministers have promised to meet the requests.

Jathran’s group declined to comment.

The Libyan navy fired on a Maltese-flagged tanker which allegedly tried to load oil from the protesters in the port in January.

Libya’s oil output has fallen to little over 200,000 bpd from 1.4 million bpd in July when protests started across the country.

“The financial situation of the government is difficult,” Culture Minister Habib al-Amin, who acts as a government spokesman, said in February.

“Some ministries have been unable to pay for expenditures due to a lack of budget and liquidity.”

Read the full story here:
Libya: North Korea Oil Tanker Tries to Dock at Seized Es-Sider Oil Port
International Business Times
Ludovica Iaccino
2014-3-6

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On the DPRK and Libya in 2011

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Pictured above: (L) Kim Il-Sung and Muammar Gaddafi attend a Mass Games performance in Kim Il-Sung Stadium, (R) Muammar Gaddafi gives an award to Kim Il-Sung

Pictured above (Google Earth): DPRK-Libya Friendship Farm at Jangchon-dong (장천동: 38.987331°, 125.842014°).  More background here.

UPDATE 26 (2011-10-26): Yonhap offers more details on the North Koreans who remain in Libya:

North Korea has banned its citizens in Libya from returning home in an apparent attempt to prevent the popular uprisings in the Arab world from reaching the isolated regime, a source said Wednesday.

About 200 North Koreans have been left in limbo in the war-torn country as Pyongyang ordered them not to return home, the source familiar with the issue said.

The North Korean doctors, nurses and construction workers were sent to the African nation to earn hard currency for their impoverished communist country.

North Korea has also taken similar steps for its officials in Libya, Egypt and other countries, said the source.

UPDATE 5 (2011-8-30): According to the Korea Times:

North Korea has not yet officially recognized the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) in Libya as the North African nation’s legitimate governing authority, said an official at the North Korean Embassy in Tripoli, Monday.

Asked whether Pyongyang has granted recognition to Libya’s NTC, the official was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency, “Not yet … (we’ll have to) wait and see.” The official, who wished to remain unidentified, was speaking to reporters at the North Korean Embassy in Tripoli.

The official also confirmed reports that some 200 North Koreans are currently working in Libya as doctors, nurses and construction workers. With regard to their safety, the official said some have returned home, although others have not been able to leave due to difficulties in transit.

“We will deal with them depending on the circumstances,” the official was quoted as saying.

The North Korean Embassy building has not been looted or damaged in the six-month-long conflict, the official added. In the past week, the South Korean Embassy building and ambassador’s residence in Tripoli were attacked by armed robbers, although no one was hurt in either incident.

Pyongyang has yet to send a new ambassador to Tripoli, after the previous envoy returned to North Korea upon completing his term, the official said.

Between the two Koreas, Pyongyang was the first to establish diplomatic relations with Tripoli in 1974.

“We hope for peace and stability (in Libya),” the official said, adding that future relations between the nations will depend on the North African nation’s stability.

Some 50 to 60 countries, including South Korea, have recognized the NTC since its formation by rebel forces against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi in February.

Read the full story here:
North Korea yet to recognize Libya’s rebel NTC
Korea Times
Philip Iglauer
2011-8-30

UPDATE 4 (2011-5-16): According to the Daily NK, NATO denies hitting the embassy:

“It has been alleged that NATO attacked the embassy; this is simply not true,” NATO said in a statement released on Friday, “While we are aware of media reports that there was damage to the North Korean embassy, we have no knowledge of possible collateral damage.”

The statement came following one released Thursday by the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating North Korean claims that it had incurred damage as a result of a “barbaric, indiscriminate air raid” by NATO.

It described how a bomb exploded in the vicinity of the embassy during the night of May 9th, releasing shrapnel that penetrated the ceiling of the building and broke car windows.

While NATO conceded that it was targeting a bunker in central Tripoli that night, it said that “the embassy was located some 500 meters from the target we struck.”

“Our strikes are precise and while the possibility of collateral damage will always exist, we go to great lengths to reduce such possibilities,” it went on.

Earlier, Libya national television also reported that the North Korean embassy in Tripoli had been damaged during an air raid.

UPDATE 3 (2011-5-12): Libya and China’s Xinhua are reporting that NATO damaged the DPRK embassy in Tripoli. KCNA has not said anything as of now.  According to Xinhua:

Libya’s state television said on Thursday a NATO air strike damaged the DPRK embassy in the capital Tripoli without giving more details.

Earlier reports indicated that the staff of the embassy has been unable to return home during the uprising.

Here is video footage of the embassy.

UPDATE 2 (2011-5-8): North Korea exported nuclear materials to Libya (Korea Herald and VOA):

The nuclear materials found in Libya in 2004 were highly likely to have been produced by North Korea, U.S.-funded broadcaster Voice of America said Saturday, citing an interview with a former senior official of the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

In the interview, Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said uranium hexafluoride, or UF6 ― used in uranium enrichment in Libya ― was very likely to have been made by the communist state.

Heinonen made the allegations based on North Korea’s purchase of parts to develop nuclear capabilities, information provided by Pakistan and other pieces of evidence.

To the question of whether there is any connection between the North and Syria with regard to nuclear technology developments, he said that that should be further investigated. He added that a nuclear reactor in Syria, which Israel destroyed, was very similar to North Korean reactors, indicating the possible connection between the two states.

The former deputy director general also said there was a good chance that North Korea has uranium enrichment facilities in areas other than the Yongbyon nuclear complex, stressing that IAEA inspectors should visit those facilities, provided they are allowed to do so.

Touching on the possibility of the North abandoning its nuclear programs, Heinonen said that the North could renounce them if the abandonment would lead to its economic development and security assurance.

The six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the North have been suspended since 2008. China, the host of the multilateral talks, has been seeking to establish a mood for the dialogue while the South is apparently reluctant to see the resumption of the talks immediately as inter-Korean issues, including two deadly attacks last year, have yet to be addressed.

UPDATE 1 (2011-4-10): The DPRK has apparently ordered many of its citizens to remain in Libya and other Arab nations.  According to Yonhap:

North Korea has ordered its people in Libya not to return home, apparently out of fear that they will spread news of the anti-government uprisings in the African nation, a source said Sunday.

In a letter sent to the North Korean embassy in Libya, Pyongyang ordered its people to “follow the measures of the Libyan government” and not return home, said the source familiar with North Korea affairs.

The move sharply contrasts with other countries’ efforts to evacuate their people from strife-torn Libya and demonstrates the Pyongyang regime’s fear of possible revolts triggered by the African nation’s pro-democracy protests of the past few months, according to the source.

More than 200 North Koreans are believed to be living in Libya to earn foreign cash while working as doctors, nurses and construction workers.

Between the two Koreas, Pyongyang was first to establish diplomatic relations with Tripoli in 1974, followed by a cooperation pact signed by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi during his visit to the North in 1982.

North Koreans in Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also appear unlikely to be able to return home while anti-government protests continue in the region.

Sources say the North Korean government in recent months has tightened control over the flow of information by strictly monitoring the use of computers, mobile phones, USB memory sticks and other IT equipment.

ORIGINAL POST (2011-3-29): Andrei Lankov writes in the Korea Times about the effects NATO military intervention in Libya might have on the DPRK’s medium-term international relations strategies. According to his article:

Kim Jong-il right now may feel very happy about his wisdom which he demonstrated by stubbornly rejecting denuclearization proposals. Colonel Gadhafi in 2003 did exactly what Kim said he would never do ― Gadhafi agreed to swap his nuclear weapons program for better relations with the West and economic rewards. As we see, it did not help the eccentric strongman. Once his subjects rose in rebellion, the West intervened and chose its military might to assist the rebels.

In private conversations, North Korean officials often say: “Had Sadam had nukes he would still be in his palace right now.” From now on, they probably will add: “And had Gadhafi not surrendered his nukes, nobody would have intervened when he was exterminating the rebels.”

But what is the likely overall impact of such thinking on the North Korean actions? If anything, it increases the already high probability of another nuclear test and/or missile launch. The preparations for such undertakings have been underway for some time. Now, North Korean leaders might believe that this is a good time to show off their steadily growing nuclear and missile capabilities. This is a way to send a message to the Obama administration, and the message will read like this: “Mr. President, we are dangerous and its better not to get involved with us even if we do something which is not to your or anybody’s liking”.

At the same time, it’s now less likely that North Korea will attempt a major provocation aimed at South Korea. Until recently, one could be almost certain that in the near future (in April or May, perhaps), the North would repeat what they did with frigate Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island. Now they will probably think twice before making another attack.

While the attacks on Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island are usually described as “provocations” this is essentially a misnomer. “Provocation” describes an act whose goal is to elicit an irrational and/or excessive reaction from the target of the incident. It was clearly not the case with the Cheonan or Yeonpyeong attack. The North attacked under the assumption that the South would not react in a meaningful way and would be incapable of inflicting any serious damage on assets valuable to the North Korean leadership (the lives of rank-and-file soldiers do not belong to this category).

North Koreans are aware that currently the South Korean public and government are in an unusually bellicose mood. They therefore expect a massive retaliation to follow in the event of another attack. Until recently the North Korean leadership probably anticipated that the South Korean retaliation would be limited, since neither the South nor its major ally, the United States, would do anything which might lead to an escalation of an exchange of fire on the border to a full scale war.

Therefore from Pyongyang’s point of view, another military operation made perfect sense. It would be a good way to demonstrate that North Korea is not going to be quiet when ignored. They wanted to show that for Seoul and Washington, it’s essentially cheaper to pay some protection money to Pyongyang (in the shape of aid and concessions) than to deal with the ever-present possibility of a North Korean attack and related sense of tensions and instability.

However, the recent developments in Libya might have changed the equation ― for a while, at least. Libya shows that under certain circumstances the U.S. and its major allies may indeed choose to launch a large-scale military operation. The assumption that Seoul and Washington will avoid escalation seems still to be true, but Pyongyang may have started to have grave doubts about this.

So it is quite possible that the coming spring will be quieter than the present author (and many of his colleagues) have until recently expected. This does not mean that North Korea has turned into a pacifist state, but from the vantage point of Pyongyang it makes sense to postpone their operations against the South and wait for the dust to settle. And of course, by being quiet for a while they can save resources which will be needed to better prepare the next missile launch and next nuclear test.

Though Lankov refers to North Korean officials in “private conversations,” the North Korean foreign ministry made essentially the same claim in a public statement on March 22 (KCNA):

The present Libyan crisis teaches the international community a serious lesson.

It was fully exposed before the world that “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement” much touted by the U.S. in the past turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as “guarantee of security” and “improvement of relations” to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.

It proved once again the truth of history that peace can be preserved only when one builds up one’s own strength as long as high-handed and arbitrary practices go on in the world.

The DPRK was quite just when it took the path of Songun and the military capacity for self-defence built up in this course serves as a very valuable deterrent for averting a war and defending peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Since then, they have published 16 stories about Libya: Demonstration Staged in Russia against US Military Operation against Libya, US Involvement in Libya Protested, AU Chairperson Rejects Military Intervention in Libya, Indiscriminate Use of Arms against Libya Assailed, Algeria Opposes Military Intervention in Libya, Military Operation in Libya Condemned in Russia , Venezuelan President Censures West’s Attack on Libya, Iranian Foreign Ministry Assails West’s Military Operation against Libya, Ugandan President Blasts West for Double Standards,  India Regrets Air Strikes on Libya, AU Demands Stop to Attack on Libya , Russian PM Brands Military Operation against Libya as Invasion, Russia Assails Military Attack on Libya , China Concerned about Libyan Crisis, Russia Opposes Military Attack on Libya , Foreign Forces’ Armed Intervention in Libya Assailed in Cuba.

In fact, there are hundreds of KCNA stories about Libya.  Check them out here (STALIN Search Engine).

The Daily NK, however, reminds us of one the the most important aspects of the DPRK-Libya relationship:

Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi has been using weapons purchased from North Korea in his faltering attempt to suppress anti-government protests.

As revealed by South Korean television broadcaster SBS on the 28th, boxes containing rockets and clearly bearing the name North Korea were found in Ras Lanuf following the retreat of pro-Qadhafi forces under NATO air strikes.

The boxes were disguised as parts for bulldozers.

Elsewhere, “64 Machine gun” was found written in Korean on an anti-aircraft heavy machine gun. A similar model of machine gun has been seen many times in images released by the North Korean authorities.

Check out the article for pictures.

UPDATE: Writing at the Wall Street Journal Blog, Evan Ramstad gets a quote from Bruce Bechtol:

“It just goes to show how deeply involved in the arms market (in the Middle East and Africa) North Korea is,” said Bruce Bechtol, a former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency in the U.S. who is now a professor at San Angelo State University.

“Their WMD [weapons of mass destruction] proliferation gets lots of attention, but folks often forget that they also engage in a plethora of conventional arms sales,” he said.

Would it be a stretch to assume that The DPRK and Libya have been trading oil for weapons?

Previous posts about the DPRK and Libya here.

This was picked up by RFA.

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DPRK crew re-captures ship from Somali Pirates

Monday, June 7th, 2010

In February 2010 Somali pirates seized a North Korean-flagged cargo ship owned by Libya’s White Sea Shipping in the Gulf of Aden. The crew and ship were taken to Somalia to be held for ransom.

Well after several months of captivity, the North Korean crew re-captured their ship and escaped to safety!  One member of the crew was injured and required medical assistance. 

According to Marine Log (h/t Monster Island):

The crew of the North Korean flagged general cargo ship RIM have regained control of the ship. It had been hijacked on February 3 and was being held at Garacad, off Somalia’s northern coastline.

Yesterday, at 1010 local time, the RIM reported that the crew had successfully retaken control of the ship and that it was headed south. One crew members was seriously injured.

The closest EU NAVFOR warship, the Spanish frigate VICTORIA, which was 100 miles away, was directed to the scene to give medical assistance and immediately launched its helicopter.

The helicopter found that, though the crew were still in control of the RIM, it was being pursued by pirates in another hijacked vessel, the MV VOC DAISY. When the helicopter approached the MV VOC DAISY, it changed her course – no warning shots were fired.

On reaching the scene, the VICTORIA then sent medical assistance to the vessel and took the injured crew member on board for treatment.

It is believed that some of the pirates were killed during the retaking of the ship.

The North Korean government should write a song about these guys!  They are way more courageous than a CNC machine! 

This means we can take away one point from the Somali Pirates and give it to the North Koreans.  This brings the cumulative score to: DPRK (4)* vs. Somali Pirates (1). The * is appropriate because the DPRK crews have received assistance from the USA and, this time, from a medical helicopter.

Previous DPRK VS. Somali pirate posts can be found here.

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DPRK ships (2)* Vs. Somali Pirates (2)

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

(* = assist from the US Navy)

According to UPI:

Pirates seized a North Korean-flagged cargo ship owned by Libya’s White Sea Shipping in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia and Yemen, an anti-piracy task force said.

The 4,800-ton MV Rim changed course and was headed for the Somali Basin Wednesday, the European Union Naval Force said, CNN reported. The task force said two U.S. Navy ships working with NATO had confirmed the incident.

There was no immediate confirmation how many crew members were aboard the vessel when it was taken.

This marks the 4th pirate attack involving a North Korean ship or crew off the coast of Somalia.  The US Navy has rescued two ships.  When Uncle Sam is not around this sort of thing happens.  If any North Korean crew were unfortuante enough to be involved in this case, they probably face a long wait in captivity.  I can’t think of anyone likely to pay their ransom.

Previous pirate posts below:

DPRK ships (2)* Vs. Somali Pirates (1)

DPRK Merchants (1)* vs. Somali Pirates (1)

Freed N. Korean vessel opens new window for U.S.-N. Korea ties

Hat tip to Josh.

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Coming in From the Cold

Thursday, October 25th, 2001

UN PAN
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.

EFFORTS PAYING OFF
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.

LITTLE BUSINESS INTEREST
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.

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