Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Thailand urges South Korea to accept more defectors

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

According to a recent story in the Choson Ilbo, the Thai government told the South Korean government in January to take the large numbers of North Korean refugees currently in Thailand off its hands, but the South Korean government found it difficult to transport more than 70 refugees at a time for reasons of security and the size of the North Korean refugee camp (Hanawon) in South Korea.

Excerpts from the story:

As of January, some 400 North Korean refugees, more than three times the optimum level of 120, were staying at the Thai immigration center. But South Korea government has been transporting only about 40 to 50 of them at a time on grounds that the North Korean refugee camp here has already reached saturation point and they have to be transported in secrecy.

A South Korean government official said, “We’ve brought North Korean refugees from Southeast Asia almost every week since December last year. As a result, the number of North Korean refugees in the Thai center has dwindled to about 300.” A total of 400 North Korean refugees have reportedly arrived in South Korea from Southeast Asia since early this year.

An estimated 800 North Korean refugees are staying at police stations or private homes in Thailand in addition to the immigration center, waiting to be taken to South Korea.

Hanawon, the South Korean government resettlement center for North Korean refugees, now accommodates some 660 North Koreans. They undergo resettlement training for three months before leaving the center. Ongoing extension work at Hanawon is expected to be completed around December.

The full story can be read here:
Thailand Urged Seoul to Accept More N.Korean Refugees
Choson Ilbo
3/19/2008

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World oil and grain prices up, DPRK feels the pinch

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Bfrief No. 08-3-13-1
3/13/2008

International fuel and food prices are skyrocketing, while the cost of Chinese goods continues to rise, so that this so-called ‘triple-threat’ is sending shockwaves through the North Korean economy. In this year’s New Year’s Joint Editorial, North Korea championed the banner of a ‘strong and prosperous nation’, and declared that this year would focus on the economy, however this ‘triple-threat’ will likely make it extremely difficult for the North to meet its policy goals.

With oil prices peaking at over 110 USD per barrel, if these high oil prices continue, North Korea, which imports crude and refined oil from China, Russia and other countries, will face a growing import burden. In accordance with the February 13th agreement reached through six-party talks, South Korea, the United States and others will provide some heavy fuel oil, and the agreement stipulated the amount of oil to be delivered, rather than the value, so this will not be affected by rising prices. However, this oil does not cover all of the North’s needs, and as for the remaining portion, either the amount imported will have to be reduced, or the North will have no choice but to invest considerably more in fuel. In addition, as a large portion of North Korea’s oil is imported from China, Pyongyang’s trade deficit with its neighbor will also grow.

According to the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), North Korea imported 523,000 tons of crude oil from China in 2005, 524,000 tons in 2006, and 523,000 tons last year, each year accounting for approximately 25 percent of total oil imports. North Korea’s trade deficit with China has shown a steadily growing trend, reaching 212,330,000 USD in 2004, 588,210,000 USD in 2005, and 764,170,000 USD in 2006. With grain prices also skyrocketing, and North Korea depending largely on China and Thailand for rice and other grain imports, the burden on the North’s economy is growing, and this is one factor in the instability of domestic prices in the DPRK.

According to the Chinese Customs Bureau, North Korea imported 81,041 tons of rice and 53,888 tons of corn last year, increases of 109.9 percent and 37.4 percent, respectively. North Korea’s corn, rice and oil imports from China are subject to market price controls, so that rising international prices directly affect the North’s cost burden. Last year, the price of Chinese goods rose 4.8 percent, recording the largest jump in ten years, and this trend extends to a wide variety of goods. 80 percent of disposable goods in North Korea are produced in China, and rising Chinese prices are directly reflected in North Korean import costs, which is passed on to DPRK citizens.

As North Korea emphasizes the building of its economy, it appears unlikely that residents will feel any direct effects of Pyongyang’s promise to prioritize the stability of its citizens’ livelihoods.

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DPRK 2007 trade statistics from KIEP

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

The Daily NK covers the release of KIEP’s analysis of North Korea’s external trade in 2007.  I cannot find the report in English, so I have to take the Daily NK’s word for it–insert caveat here.

Here are the highlights:

  • The estimated total value of North Korea’s foreign trade decreased from US$2.996 billion 2006 to US$2.7 billion in 2007.

  • China occupies 70% of the trade volume, up from 56.7 in 2006 (a startling increase).

  • Trade with Japan fell to US$900,000, a decrease of 92% from 2006 (so it appears that some Chinese are getting rich from international trade restrictions).

  • Trade with Thailand fell 42.4% since the nuclear test.

  • Trade with the EU fell by 53.2% since the nuclear test.

To be honest I do not trust these numbers, so if someone comes across the KIEP report in English, please send it to me.

According to the Daily NK, the KIEP report is called: “Economic Prospect of North Korea in 2008” by Cho Myung Chul and Hong Ihk Pyo

The full story can be read here:
North Korea’s Economic Prospect for 2008
Daily NK
Yang Jung A
3/3/2008

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DPRK economic statistics from KEI (BoK data)

Saturday, February 2nd, 2008

In October, the Korea Economic Institute published a presentation of North Korean economic data assembled by the Bank of Korea.  Basic stats below:

  • GDP: -1.1% in 2006 (+3.8% in 2005)-Due to decrease in agriculture output. 
  • Services are the largest component of the economy (34%)
  • Trade volume (exports + imports) approximately US$3 billion
  • 2005 trading partners in order: China, South Korea, Thailand, Russia, Japan, Singapore

See the full report here: northkorea.ppt

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North Korea bites a golden bullet

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Korea Times
Donald Kirk
1/24/2007

Gold fever is rampaging through the ruling elite of North Korea in the quest for relief from seemingly incurable economic malaise exacerbated by more than a year as a total outcast from the international financial community.

Word from Pyongyang is that trading companies and even individuals are offering payments in gold for imports from across the border with China and also in barter deals for products imported from elsewhere. Gold also has become a form of currency in the internal reward system of payoffs and bribes manipulated by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il to guarantee the loyalty of high-ranking officials.

The rush to sell gold – and, to a lesser extent, silver – has sharply escalated in the 16 months since the US Treasury Department blacklisted Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau, banning all firms doing business with US firms from dealings with that bank. The Treasury Department charged that the BDA had been the principal conduit through which North Korea was shipping counterfeit US$100 “supernotes” printed on a highly sophisticated Swiss-made press in Pyongyang.

It’s well known that the US ban forced the BDA to impose a freeze on North Korean accounts totaling $24 million, but less well known that the bank also stopped purchasing gold produced by North Korea’s historic gold mines, in operation, sporadically, since the late 19th century.

Output of the mines, in mountains about 160 kilometers north of Pyongyang, fell sharply in the late 1990s as a result of flood and famine but, with foreign expertise, has begun to pick up in the past few years.

The impact of the ban, moreover, goes far beyond a single bank in Macau. Although North Korea last spring sold $38 million in gold and silver in Thailand, Pyongyang has been frustrated in reviving its presence on the London bullion market, the world’s largest marketplace for precious metals, amid increased US pressure on the large international banks that are the major buyers of gold.

It was in the aftermath of the ban on the BDA that North Korea’s Chosun Central Bank coughed up the information required by the London Bullion Markets Association (LBMA) for listing as a “good deliverer” of gold. North Korea from 1983 to 1993 had been in the LBMA’s good graces, averaging a ton a month in sales to London buyers that included some of the world’s leading banks, but had slipped off the list after failing to keep up deliveries.

The fact that the Chosun Central Bank again is listed with the LBMA, however, is no guarantee North Korea will be able to sell its gold. The US Treasury ban on dealings with the BDA – as well as sanctions unanimously imposed by the United Nations Security Council after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in October – has spooked buyers in London.

While the LBMA disavows “political criteria” in deciding on eligibility for its “good delivery list”, an LBMA memorandum leaves no doubt how buyers are likely to respond to overtures from a country or company on an international blacklist. None of them, according to Stewart Murray, the LBMA’s chief executive, is willing to take delivery from a company or country that is subject to sanctions.

Or, as the LBMA memorandum puts it, “If, for instance, a bullion custodian considered that it was bound by national or international sanctions that were in force against a particular country, it would have to refuse to accept bars from a refiner in that country.”

The memorandum, moreover, does not mince words when it comes to stating the importance of a “good deliverer” rating. “Given the status of London as the world’s leading center for bullion trading,” it says, “the LBMA List has become the de facto world list of quality refiners and Good Delivery accreditation is a highly sought-after accolade.”

In recent years, “the List” – capitalized in the memo – “has grown primarily due to the listing of refiners in China and Russia” and now totals 77 refiners in 31 countries.

Investors see North Korea as competing on a world stage once sanctions are lifted. “What we’re doing is normal business,” said Roger Barrett, whose firm, Korea Business Consultants, operates in North Korea from headquarters in Beijing. By reviving old minesand developing new ones, he argued, “We’re creating jobs for people, in line with the UN basic charter, in line with economic growth.”

Barrett also believes North Korea may somehow get around the sanctions by finding new markets. “Why would you go to the trouble of going to London?” he asked. “They’re totally entitled to sell their gold.” The fact is, however, that London remains the place to sell gold in significant quantities on a regular basis.

Under the circumstances, Colin McAskill, chairman of Hong Kong’s Koryo Asia Ltd and the guiding light of the Chosun Development and Investment Fund, dedicated to investing in North Korea, accused top US Treasury officials of waging a campaign to make sure the ban on banks dealing with the BDA extends to gold and silver.

McAskill accused US officials, led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Stuart Levey, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, of “using coercion, innuendo and sheer force to intimidate banks from dealing with North Korea”.

Among the victims of the US campaign is one of Koryo Asia’s projects, the Daedong Credit Bank, the only foreign bank based in North Korea, set up primarily to deal with accounts of foreign firms and embassies in Pyongyang. The freeze of North Korean accounts in the BDA, according to McAskill, includes about $7 million funds of Daedong Bank customers.

McAskill avidly supports North Korean demands for the US to lift the ban on the BDA – a move that would not only open up the frozen North Korean accounts but would provide the opening needed for Pyongyang to trade in a wide range of products around the world.

The financial issue is assumed to have ranked at the top of an agenda discussed in meetings in Berlin between the chief US envoy, Christopher Hill, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan. Hill, reporting on the Berlin talks in stop-offs in Seoul, in Tokyo and Beijing, seemed hopeful about “progress” in the next round of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, expected to open in Beijing next month, after the failure of negotiators to get anywhere in the last round before Christmas.

South Korean media said North Korea had agreed to shut down its five-megawatt reactor at its nuclear complex Yongbyon in return for the US promise of massive aid, the crux of the 1994 Geneva Framework Agreement that blew up in 2002 amid US charges of a separate, secret North Korean program for developing warheads from enriched uranium.

There was no assurance, however, that the US is ready to relent on the BDA or that the UN Security Council will consider lifting its own sanction – enough to dissuade banks in London from buying North Korean gold regardless of the US ban on the BDA.

McAskill believes the rationale for the crackdown on the BDA is flawed. He questions the validity of the counterfeit charge and, in any case, says most of the frozen funds are not those of the North Korean government, even though they’re tired up in North Korean accounts. “We want to get a breakthrough on the six-party talks by getting the sanctions eased or lifted entirely,” he said. “We’re at a very delicate stage.”

Whatever happens, McAskill sees North Korea as ripe for investment, with precious metals high on the list of potential exports. “North Korea wants to move back into legitimate business,” he said. “They have a wealth of minerals – gold, silver, zinc, magnesite, copper, uranium, platinum – that needs investment to extract.”

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Under bank sanctions, North Korea looks to gold exports

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

Christian Science monitor
Donald Kirk
1/22/2007

More than a century after American mining engineers first opened up North Korea’s gold mines, a fortune in gold and other metals and minerals offers the prospect for North Korea to ease the pressures of financial sanctions.

The question, however, is whether North Korea can navigate around a US Treasury order that forbids institutions doing business in the United States from dealing with Banco Delta Asia in Macao, the main avenue for North Korean financial dealings.

The Treasury ban, first promulgated in 2002, has effectively frozen the North’s efforts to conduct international business. While it doesn’t extend to gold, market experts say that US officials have made it clear that banks should not buy North Korean gold.

“The US has been using coercion, innuendo, and sheer force to intimidate banks from dealing with North Korea,” says Colin McAskill, chairman of Koryo Asia Ltd., which invests in North Korea through the Chosun Development & Investment Fund. “We want to get a breakthrough on the six-party talks by getting the sanctions eased or lifted entirely. We’re at a very delicate stage.”

North Korea, says Mr. McAskill, “wants to move back into legitimate business.” Selling gold on the London market – the world’s largest – “is one way they can prove that,” he adds. “They have a wealth of minerals – gold, silver, zinc, magnesite, copper, uranium, platinum – that needs investment to extract.”

One indication of North Korea’s need to sell gold was its decision to provide information needed by the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) to list the North’s central bank as a “good deliverer” of gold and silver. Listing with the LBMA is essential for refiners who want to sell their products in London. The bank’s listing was suspended 2-1/2 years ago when it failed to respond to LBMA requests for “proactive monitoring.”

The LBMA said it does not “take into account any political criteria,” and will keep the bank on its rolls for another three years without monitoring.

Despite the listing, market experts say the big banks that are major buyers of gold – and form the LBMA’s core membership – are not likely to flout the spirit of the US Treasury order against Banco Delta Asia, through which North Korea exported gold prior to the ban.

“The fact that they’re on the list does not mean they can deliver to the London market,” says Stewart Murray, the LBMA’s chief executive. “When we have sanctions, none of the facilities will accept delivery from a company or a country that is subject to these sanctions,”

Trying to build momentum for talks

The reluctance of buyers in London to deal in North Korean gold, widely seen as the likeliest legal way to mitigate the impact of the banking ban, adds urgency to another effort at six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

The chief US negotiator, Christopher Hill, has been traveling through northeast Asia, stopping off here, in Tokyo, and in Beijing after talks in Berlin last week with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-Gwan. The Chinese are expected to set a date for renewing the talks, which broke off before Christmas amid North Korean demands for the US to lift the ban on Banco Delta Asia.

North Korea raised hopes for renewed six-party talks, saying “a certain agreement” was reached in Berlin last week. Neither Mr. Kim nor Mr. Hill have provided details, but analysts suspect that the two discussed the financial issue and its relationship to the ultimate purpose of six-party talks: getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

North Korea has been renewing its drive to sell gold for the past year since submitting to the LBMA’s monitoring requirements. At the same time, the North has sold relatively small amounts of gold in Thailand, with which it has developed a strong trading relationship in recent years. Last spring, North Korea exported 1.3 tons of gold to Thailand for nearly $30 million while also looking for markets elsewhere in the region.

“Why would you go to the trouble of going to London,” asks Roger Barrett, whose firm, Korea Business Consultants in Beijing, is helping to develop gold mining in North Korea. “They’re totally entitled to sell their gold.”

No reports of exports since July

Yet there have been no reports that North Korea has exported any gold since testing seven long-range missiles in July. Since the North conducted an underground nuclear test in October, which resulted in deeper sanctions from the UN Security Council, dealers have reportedly been even more reluctant to buy North Korean gold.

Estimates of North Korea’s gold reserves range as high as 2,000 tons, but mining has been sporadic since British, American, and then Japanese interests mined for gold beginning in the 19th century. With foreign expertise, North Korean mining may return to the period between 1983 to 1993, when its central bank sold an average of one ton a month on the London market.

“What we’re doing is normal business,” says Mr. Barrett in Beijing, explaining the efforts at reviving the mining industry. “We’re creating jobs for people, in line with the UN basic charter, in line with economic growth.”

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North Korea’s golden path to security

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner
1/18/2007

While the West and Japan have targeted North Korea’s overseas bank accounts to curtail its weapons program, Pyongyang has recently turned to more ingenious ways of maintaining its international businesses through substantial exports of gold, silver and other valuable metals.

Pyongyang has apparently found a willing conduit to global buyers through its many business connections in Thailand, which has recently emerged as the isolated state’s third-largest trading partner after China and South Korea. According to official Thai Customs Department statistics, North Korea shipped 500 kilograms of gold worth 398 million baht (US$11 million) to Thailand last April.

The following month, another 800kg of gold worth 635 million baht landed in Thailand courtesy of North Korea. Also, in June, 10 tons of silver worth 148 million baht was sent from North Korea to Thailand, followed by 12 tons worth 166 million baht last October.

In sum, North Korea exported 1.35 billion baht – or nearly $40 million – worth of precious metals to Thailand last year.

That is a substantial figure for North Korea, a country with an estimated gross domestic product of about $22 billion and whose total exports amounted to just over $1 billion, according to official statistics. Thailand is bound by the international sanctions imposed last October against North Korea by the United Nations in response to Pyongyang’s exploding an atomic bomb.

According to official Thai statistics, the gold and first consignment of silver were shipped to Thailand before the UN sanctions were imposed. But there is nothing illegal in North Korea exporting precious metals, unless, of course, the income from the sale can be tied directly to the country’s controversial weapons programs, which anyway would be extremely hard to prove.

Untapped riches
North Korea’s gold and silver mines remain largely untapped. According to Tse Pui-kwan, a Chinese-American chemist who joined the US Bureau of Mines in 1990, North Korea has significant deposits of copper, gold, graphite, iron, lead, magnesite, tungsten and zinc. When the Cold War ended and North Korea lost large amounts of foreign aid from both the Soviet Union and China, its mining industry fell into disrepair and extraction activities sharply declined.

But with new foreign cooperation, production has resumed, which the recent exports to Thailand clearly demonstrate. North Korea’s main gold mine is in Unsan county in North Pyongan province, about 150 kilometers north of Pyongyang. It was originally opened by a US firm in 1896, when Korea was still an independent and unified kingdom, and was later taken over by a Japanese company when the peninsula became a colony ruled by Tokyo in 1910.

Nearly a century later, consultants from Clough Engineering of Australia in 2001 inspected the same mine under the sponsorship of the United Nations Office for Project Services. They estimated that Unsan held 1,000 tons of gold reserves, which if true would make it one of the world’s major gold mines. Silver is also mined in the same area, while iron ore and magnesite are found in North and South Hamgyong provinces in the northeast.

North Korea’s extraction techniques are sometimes controversial. According to witnesses interviewed by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea for its 2003 report “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps”, there is a gold-mining labor camp near Danchun in South Hamgyong province, where thousands of prisoners are being held and forced to work under abysmal conditions.

In that same report, several witnesses claimed that “some of the mine shafts dated back to the early days of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s. Accessing the veins of minable gold required descending and, later, ascending a wooden staircase 500 meters in length, using gas lanterns for light. Deaths from mining accidents were a daily occurrence, including multiple deaths from the partial collapse of mine shafts.”

The first attempt to modernize North Korea’s gold-mining industry was made by an Italian financier and former Foreign Ministry official, Carlo Baeli, who traveled to the country in the early 1990s and claims to be the first Westerner to do business with Pyongyang since the Korean War. He later wrote a book called Kim Jong-il and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, which was published in Pyongyang in 1990, obviously with official permission as it was printed by the state-owned Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Apart from painting a flattering portrait of the North Korean leader, the book describes Baeli’s first trip to Pyongyang in 1990, of which he wrote, “We were interested in investing in the mining industry, mainly in the extraction of gold and granite.” Baeli later signed a contract for a loan of $118 million to purchase mining equipment, and the goal was to resurrect no fewer than six gold mines across North Korea. The money was to be provided by international banks such as Midland Bank and the Naples International Bank. He also arranged for the mining equipment to be shipped from Italy.

But heavy flooding in the mid-1990s damaged both the equipment and the mines and, according to a 2006 report in Forbes magazine, Baeli today works as an adviser to the Pyongyang government at a tire-recycling plant. The car and truck tires are imported from Japan, get ground into granulate in North Korea, and are sold to China for road resurfacing, car mats and shoe soles. A lucrative business, perhaps, but not quite the golden dream Baeli had when he first arrived in Pyongyang nearly 17 years ago.

Another unusual partner in North Korea’s gold trade may have been the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In August 2001, the right-wing South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo published a story claiming that Marcos in September 1970 had deposited 940 tons of gold bars at a Swiss bank in the name of the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung. The report came from a former Marcos aide, and Munhwa Ilbo carried a copy of the bank-account certificate on its front page. The alleged gold bars were part of what a Japanese army general had looted from Asia during World War II, Munhwa Ilbo claimed.

That report was never independently confirmed, but it nevertheless reflects the mystique and speculation that still surround North Korea’s gold industry – and how little the outside world actually knows about it.

Financial pressures
When the US took action against Banco Delta Asia in Macau in September 2005, labeling it a “primary money-laundering concern” for North Korean funds, very little evidence to substantiate the charges was ever produced. North Korea lost $24 million when the accounts it held with the bank in the name of a front company, Zokwang Trading, were frozen. Zokwang, which had been operating in Macau for decades, also closed its office and relocated to Zhuhai province across the border in China proper.

The action against Banco Delta Asia, a privately owned bank that the Macau government later had to prop up to prevent it from collapsing, was the second move against North Korea’s assets abroad. In a much less publicized action, North Korea’s only bank located in a foreign country – the Golden Star Bank in Vienna – was forced to suspend its operations in June 2004. The Golden Star was 100% owned by the Korea Daesong Bank, a state enterprise headquartered in Pyongyang, and was allowed to set up a branch in the Austrian capital in 1982.

For more than two decades, Austrian police kept a close eye on the bank, but there was no law that forbade the North Koreans from operating a bank in the country. Nevertheless, Austria’s police intelligence department stated in a 1997 report: “This bank [Golden Star] has been mentioned repeatedly in connection with everything from money-laundering and distribution of fake currency notes to involvement in the illegal trade in radioactive material.”

Eventually the international pressure to close the bank became too strong. Sources in Vienna believe the US played an important behind-the-scenes role in finally shuttering Golden Star’s modest office on 12 Kaiserstrasse in the Austrian capital. Until then, Vienna had been North Korea’s center for financial transactions in Europe and the Middle East. Visitors to North Korea have noted that euro coins in circulation in the country – the US dollar is not welcome in Pyongyang – invariably came from Austria. (Euro notes are the same in all European Union countries, but coins designate individual member countries.)

Last October, in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, Japan froze a dollar-denominated account that North Korea’s Tanchon Commercial Bank held with an unnamed Japanese bank. The account had a balance of $1,000 and had not been active for nearly a decade, so the move was mainly symbolic: to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot use banks in Japan for any deposits, big or small.

So it is hardly surprising that North Korea is looking for new ways to manage and maintain its international business interests and for new partners when it is increasingly locked out of most foreign countries. That is where Thailand apparently comes into the picture.

In 2004, trade between Thailand and North Korea for the first time overtook trade between Japan and North Korea. Previously, a string of North Korean-controlled front companies, managed by the Chosen Soren, or the Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, had supplied North Korea with computers, electronic goods and other vital items.

In 2003, North Korea’s total trade volume to Japan was just over $265 million and fell even lower in 2004. At the same time, trade between Thailand and North Korea rose to more than $331 million in 2004. Two-way trade between Thailand and North Korea totaled $328 million in 2005, with Thai exports to North Korea amounting to $207 million and North Korean imports to Thailand totaling $121 million.

During January-November 2006 – the latest statistics available from the Thai Customs Department – trade totaled about $345 million, with Thai exports accounting for $200 million and North Korean imports $145 million. Thai imports of gold and silver have pushed those trade figures higher.

North Korea’s trade with Thailand grew mainly under the previous government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who at one point proposed signing a free-trade agreement between the two countries. In August 2005, Thaksin was formally invited by Kim Jong-il to visit Pyongyang. The visit never materialized, and since Thaksin was ousted last year in a military coup, the future of Thai-North Korean relations is very much in doubt.

But gold and silver are highly fungible and North Korea apparently has lots of the commodities. It appears Kim Jong-il has for now found at least one golden path around the international sanctions imposed against his regime’s nuclear tests.

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North Korea selling off gold reserves

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

Korea Herald
12/27/2006

North Korea, desperate for foreign currency under U.S.-imposed sanctions, has started to sell its gold reserves on international markets, a Japanese newspaper said Tuesday.

The United States last year blacklisted a Pyongyang-linked bank in Macau, infuriating the communist regime which walked out of disarmament talks for 13 months during which it tested an atom bomb.

Since the US crackdown on the bank, North Korea has earned 28 million dollars in foreign cash by exporting gold to Thailand, which had not imported gold from Pyongyang for the previous five years, the Yomiuri Shimbun said.

North Korea exported 500 kilograms of bullion to Thailand in April and another 800 kilograms a month later, the conservative Japanese daily said without identifying its sources.

North Korea’s central bank, Choson Central Bank was also re-listed on May 12 for trading on the London Bullion Market, said the newspaper, quoting a spokesman for the London market.

The North Korean central bank, which can issue currency, joined the London gold market in 1976 but was de-listed in June 2004 due to inactive trading, the newspaper said.

The Yomiuri, citing South Korean data, said North Korea was estimated to have between 1,000 and 2,000 tons of gold reserves.

The United States blacklisted Macau’s Banco Delta Asia in September 2005, saying it suspected that 24 million dollars in North Korean accounts were linked to counterfeiting or money-laundering.

The accounts have been frozen and other Asian banks have taken similar moves.

The financial sanctions were a main topic during six-nation talks, aimed at persuading North Korea to end its nuclear program, which ended in deadlock last week in Beijing.

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Number of N. Koreans defecting to S. Korea increases nearly 60 percent

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

Yonhap
Byun Duk-kun
8/23/2006

The number of North Korean defectors coming to South Korea increased by nearly 60 percent in the first seven months of this year compared to the same period of last year, the Unification Ministry said Wednesday.

A total of 1,054 North Koreans have come to the country as of the end of July, up 59 percent from a year ago, the ministry said in a report. Apparently hundreds more are waiting to find their way here, it said.

Earlier reports said a group of 175 North Koreans were rounded up by Thai police on suspicion of illegal immigration Tuesday, only hours before they were to board a passenger jet flying to South Korea.

The chief of the Thai police’s immigration bureau, Lt. Gen. Suwat Tumrongsiskul, was quoted as saying the North Koreans would be prosecuted, but would be detained “on a humanitarian basis” until they leave the country since they are seeking refuge in third countries.

The number of North Koreans coming to the South has steadily increased since the late 1990s with more than 100 finding their way here in 1999 for the first time since the end of 1950-53 Korean War.

The number increased to 1,139, breaking the 1,000 mark for the first time, in 2002, and rose to 1,281 in 2003 and 1,894 a year later.

International relief agencies, however, believe as many as 100,000 North Koreans may still be hiding in other countries, mostly in China, while civic organizations working to help the North Koreans put the number at 300,000 in China alone.

With no relatives or jobs in China, most of the North Korean defectors live in extreme destitution, usually making a living by begging. The Chinese government refuses to recognize them as refugees and regularly rounds them up and sends them back to their communist homeland where they are reportedly tortured, prosecuted and often executed.

The South Korean government says it will accept any North Koreans coming to the country, but cannot encourage or support their defection because of its relations with the North, as well as with other countries, which are used as stopovers for North Korean defectors.

Beijing is bound by a written agreement with Pyongyang to repatriate any North Koreans in its custody, according to government officials.

North and South Korea remain divided along a heavily-fortified border since the fratricidal Korean War (1950-53).

Defection through the inter-Korean border is not unprecedented, but is nearly impossible with nearly 70 percent of some 1.8 million troops on both sides standing guard within a radius of a few kilometers from the border.

Relations between the divided Koreas significantly warmed up following a historic meeting of their leaders in the North Korean capital in 2000.

The two, however, still remain technically in a state of war as the Korean War ended with an armistice agreement, not a peace treaty.

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Investors show new interest in North Korea

Friday, August 12th, 2005

From the Herald Tribune:
Donald Greenlees

In May, Kelvin Chia, one of the first foreign lawyers to receive a license to practice in North Korea, took a party of Indonesian miners on an investment tour.
 
Visiting a coal mine outside Pyongyang, the group was surprised by the welcome from North Korean officials and found that the basic road and power infrastructure serving the mine site was in a better condition than they expected. Chia said the mining company – which he declined to identify for commercial reasons – is likely to soon enter a joint venture with the North Korean operator to further develop the mine.
 
Since being granted the right to open an office in Pyongyang last October, Chia, who is from Singapore, says his firm has been approached by about 20 companies from Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia with an interest in investing in communist North Korea’s shaky economy. Chia’s firm was the first wholly owned foreign legal practice in North Korea.
 
“I think there is an upsurge of interest in that country,” said Chia, who is based in Singapore but runs an office of two lawyers in the North Korean capital and has plans to expand.
 
Chia’s recent experience mirrors that of other hardy business people who have persisted with North Korea in the past decade, despite a nuclear crisis and U.S. commercial embargoes. Some business people equate the current level of investor interest with the early 1990s, when foreign companies, including some multinationals, started a spate of investments in the hope that North Korea’s largely self-imposed isolation would end.
 
While the latest round of six-nation talks to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program remains inconclusive, a handful of Asian and Western investors, some with earlier experience in doing business there, are again considering possibilities in defiance of Washington’s desire to use economic seclusion as a bargaining tool.
 
These investors, mainly manufacturers and miners, are being enticed back by low wages, plentiful mineral resources and a regime that appears increasingly prepared to support foreign investment and open its economy.
 
Pyongyang has signaled plans to open investment promotion offices within its embassies in Singapore and Malaysia, according to Chia, who maintains regular contact with North Korean officials. A revised foreign investment law, passed by the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly in 2004, relaxed some conditions on foreign investment and permitted full foreign ownership of some ventures. The assembly has also strengthened intellectual property rights laws.
 
A South Korean government official said that Pyongyang also recently started to approve visas for foreign buyers to enter the joint North-South industrial park at Gaeseong, just north of the demilitarized zone. The official said 19 visas had been approved as of mid-July for buyers from Germany, Japan, China and Australia.
 
Investment in Gaeseong is restricted to South Korean companies.
 
Tony Michell, [Korean Associates Business Consultancy]a business consultant based in Seoul, has received permission to take a group of eight investors to North Korea in September in the first of what he said would be monthly investment missions. The first group will comprise European and Asian business people, none of whom are from China or South Korea, the countries with the largest investment in the North.
 
Michell, who introduced a number of companies to North Korea during the last upswing in investment interest from 1993 to 1995, said there had recently been “a revival of interest.”
 
“This comes up to the 1993 level of interest,” said Michell, managing director for Asia of the Euro-Asian Business Consultancy, adding that if the United States dropped its economic embargo “this would be a humdinger of an emerging market.”
 
Still, potential investors in North Korea have to weigh a long history of failure. Of the eight companies Michell introduced during the early 1990s, only one investment survives. An investment bank based in Hong Kong, Peregrine, entered a joint venture to establish Daedong Credit Bank in Pyongyang. Peregrine collapsed, but Daedong is marking a decade in business.
 
The experience of North East Asia Telecom, a Thai firm, is sobering. It set up a mobile phone network, but since May 2004 use of mobile phones has been suspended by the North Korean government as part of a security crackdown.
 
New investment largely dried up after October 2002 when U.S. officials claimed that North Korean officials had admitted during talks to possessing a nuclear weapons program. There is general agreement among investment advisers and economic analysts that if the nuclear impasse can be resolved foreign investment will accelerate.
 
The nuclear crisis erupted as North Korea was implementing a series of measures to open its economy and increase appeal to investors, like giving state-owned enterprises greater freedom to operate commercially, removing price controls and allowing its currency, the won, to be exchanged for the euro, which was adopted in December 2002 for all foreign currency transactions.
 
Analysts of the North Korean economy say those reforms remain largely on track and paved the way for an upsurge of direct investment in 2004 from China, North Korea’s main economic partner. Ahn Ye Hong, who studies the North Korean economy for the Bank of Korea, the South Korean central bank, said that investment from China rose from $1.3 million in 2003 to $173 million in 2004.
 
He said this investment was driven by China’s desire to “obtain as much of North Korea’s resources as it can,” particularly iron ore. He expects a further significant increase in Chinese investment this year.
 
The South Korean government is also seeking to increase direct investment in the North. Although the bulk of South Korean investment has gone into just two projects, Gaeseong and the Mount Geumgang tourism development, recent talks between the two Koreas explored the possibility of investment in upgrading or repairing mines that have fallen into disuse.
 
An official in South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said an inter-Korean economic cooperation meeting in Pyongyang between Sept. 28 and Oct. 1 would discuss the proposal further. The official, who requested anonymity due to restrictions on speaking publicly, said it was likely any South Korean involvement in redevelopment of the mines would be carried out by a joint enterprise between the government and the private sector.

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An affiliate of 38 North