Bradley K. Martin
A sign of North Korea’s fledgling moves toward a market economy can be found at the Pyongyang monument commemorating the 1945 founding of the Workers’ Party. Beneath a 50-meter-tall rendition of the party’s logo — a hammer, sickle and writing brush — sits a street photographer.
A handmade sign displays her price list and sample photos, mostly of groups of North Korean visitors, with the monument as background.
The photographer is one of countless sidewalk entrepreneurs – - most of them selling food and drink — who have set up shop in North Korea since 2002. Before that, they would have been hauled off to re-education camps for profiteering. In the late 1990s, North Korea’s Civil Law Dictionary described merchants as a class to be eradicated because they “buy goods from producers at a low price and sell them to consumers at a high price by way of fraud, deceit and spoils.”
Since then, the party newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, has quoted Kim Jong Il, who’s held supreme power since the 1994 death of his father, Kim Il Sung, as favoring profits under socialist economic management.
North Korea, one of the world’s last Stalinist regimes, has gradually begun permitting commerce. On a four-day visit to Pyongyang, the capital, in October — arranged and scripted by the government — a group of 17 Western journalists got a glimpse of the changes. Clean, new restaurants were packed with paying customers while the streets — almost empty in 1979 and only lightly traveled in ’89 and ’92 — bustled with bicycles, motorbikes and Japanese sedans.
In the state-owned Yanggakdo Hotel on an island in the Taedong River, a mostly Chinese clientele played slot machines, cards or roulette at the Casino Pyongyang. Since 1998, Macau billionaire Stanley Ho, through his Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau SARL, has invested $30 million in the casino, whose staff is also Chinese.
Now some investors from farther afield are joining pioneering Chinese and South Koreans in plunging into a country once so isolated it was known as the Hermit Kingdom. In September, Anglo- Sino Capital Partners, a London-based fund manager, said it had formed the Chosun Development & Investment Fund, which plans to raise $50 million for investments in North Korea.
“It’s the last virgin economy,” says Colin McAskill, 65, a director of Anglo-Sino and chairman of Koryo Asia Ltd., which is investment adviser to the new fund.
Besides recent changes in the economic system, a 99 percent literacy rate and a minimum wage for workers in foreign-invested ventures of only $35 a month, McAskill says, he was drawn by North Korea’s rich natural resources — including iron ore, copper, lead, zinc, molybdenum, gold, nickel, manganese, tungsten, anthracite and lignite.
The fund will concentrate on North Korean companies that have been active internationally in the past, with track records as foreign currency earners, says McAskill.
He negotiated on behalf of North Korea with foreign bank creditors in 1987, when the country was unable to repay some $900 million in balance-of-payment loans that had enabled the regime in the 1970s to purchase Western industrial technology — Swiss watch-making machinery, for example — as well as such non-capital goods as 1,000 Volvo sedans from Sweden.
The country’s petroleum potential lured Dublin-based Aminex Plc and its Korea-focused subsidiary, Korex Ltd., which in August announced the signing of a nine-year production-sharing agreement to explore and develop 66,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) of North Korean territory. The agreement covers areas in the Yellow Sea’s West Korea Bay and in the Sea of Japan as well as onshore.
While North Korea lacks proven petroleum reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the West Korea Bay in particular may contain hydrocarbon reserves, as it’s considered to be a geological extension of China’s oil-rich Bohai Bay.
More foreign investment may come, says Tony Michell, a Seoul- based consultant on North Korea. Michell, a 58-year-old Briton, says he has recently shepherded 20 senior managers of international companies, representing seven nationalities, to Pyongyang.
“They’re big players,” says Michell, declining to identify his clients by name or company. “They’re looking at everything, from services to manufacturing. They want to get the measure of the North Koreans and be ready if the six-party talks succeed.”
The so-called six-party talks — between North Korea and China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. — are aimed at ending the country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. In September, the six countries agreed on a statement of principles to govern further talks. It called for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, a peace treaty and economic cooperation in energy, trade and investment.
Seoul-based Hyundai Research Institute, an affiliate of the Hyundai Group, projected in September that a successful outcome to the talks would be worth as much as $55 billion to the economy in the North — and more than twice that in the South.
Optimism about the economy has boosted the prices of defaulted North Korean debt originally owed to hundreds of creditors, mostly European banks, which in the 1970s began meeting as a London-based ad hoc group to discuss restructuring options. In the 1990s, that so-called London Club turned a portion of the debt into Euroclearable certificates, securities that were denominated in Swiss francs and German marks.
The certificates are trading at about 20-21 percent of face value, up from 12 percent in 2003, according to London-based Exotix Ltd., a unit of Icap Plc, one of a few financial firms that make an over-the-counter market in them.
The debt’s price has risen in the past on excessive optimism about the country’s future. In early 1998, the debt was trading at nearly 60 percent of face value amid rumors that North Korea would collapse imminently and be absorbed by wealthy South Korea, which would then make good on the entire outstanding debt.
That had not happened by the time of the crash later that year in global emerging-market securities, when the North Korean debt price sank to about 25 percent of face value.
Exotix estimates that North Korea owes the equivalent of some $1.6 billion in principal and interest to banks out of a total $14 billion in principal and interest owed globally to mainly communist and formerly communist countries.
Although a cease-fire was declared in 1953 in the war between North Korea and China on one side and the United Nations — under whose flag the Americans, South Koreans and others had fought — on the other side, no peace treaty has ever been signed.
The U.S. maintains sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act that restrict trade and financial transactions with North Korea — and apply to Americans and permanent residents of the U.S. and to branches, subsidiaries and controlled affiliates of U.S. organizations throughout the world.
North Korea’s flirtations with capitalism are belated compared with those of China and the former Soviet Union, which began opening their economies in the 1970s.
North Korea did pass a law legalizing foreign investment in 1984. The law, which permitted equity joint ventures between state enterprises and foreigners, attracted only $150 million in investment during the following decade, largely because investors were put off by the country’s poor roads, railroads, power systems and phone networks and by official interference in joint ventures’ recruitment, dismissal and compensation of workers, according to a 2000 thesis by Pilho Park, a postgraduate student at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison.
In contrast, Vietnam lured $7.5 billion in investment in the first five years after it opened its economy to foreign capital in 1988, Park wrote.
Following the collapse of European communism in the early 1990s, North Korea opened the Rajin-Sonbong Free Economic and Trade Zone on the northeastern border with China and Russia. A brief flurry of investor interest ensued and then fizzled out when a crisis over the country’s nuclear weapons program took North Korea to the brink of war with the U.S. and South Korea in 1994.
In the mid ’90s, catastrophic floods, combined with the collapse of the global communist system of aid and preferential trade, caused a severe energy shortage that crippled the economy. As much as 70 percent of manufacturing capacity went idle, according to the South Korean central bank.
Also in the mid ’90s, famine killed as many as 2.5 million North Koreans, by the estimate of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Since then, food aid from abroad, an absence of large-scale natural catastrophes and a 2005 harvest that was the biggest in 10 years have kept North Korea from the massive starvation that’s taken place elsewhere, including Niger, says Richard Ragan, North Korea director for the United Nations World Food Program.
Still, “the country faces chronic food insecurity,” Ragan says. “One of the things that happened with the food shortages is that marginal lands became less controlled. You see people trying to farm on some of the most inhospitable plots of land you could imagine.”
In October, steep, unterraced hillsides were plowed outside Pyongyang. The crops can then wash down, rocks and all, during rainstorms, harming water supplies and damaging farmland – fertility.
A second nuclear weapons crisis boiled up in 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of conducting a secret uranium enrichment program — to replace a plutonium program that it had frozen as part of a settlement of the earlier crisis.
That same year, the regime proceeded with what then Prime Minister Hong Song Nam described as dramatic new economic measures, which helped bring arbitrarily set prices and foreign exchange rates closer to those prevailing on the black market.
The North Korean won consequently dropped to 150 won to the dollar in December 2002 from 2.15 to the dollar a year earlier. The official rate is currently about 170 won, while on the black market, one dollar can bring about 2,000 won.
The government also introduced pay incentives aimed at boosting worker productivity. The system is in operation at enterprises such as the Pyongyang Embroidery Institute, where some 400 women stitch elaborate pictures for framing and sale.
Employees who don’t perform up to expectations aren’t fired; they’re denied raises, says spokeswoman Woo Kum Suk. Unable to live on their minuscule basic salary, equivalent at black market rates to something over a dollar a month, non-performers eventually quit and go elsewhere, Woo says. Good workers can see their salaries raised as much as fivefold.
“In my opinion, it’s good to have this system,” she says. “Although the government supplies things to us, sometimes there’s something more we want to buy.”
North Korea has some way to go before many investors rush in. According to a UN report, net investment inflow for 2003 — the most recent year for which statistics are available — was a negative figure: minus $5 million.
Currently the country is constructing a new special economic zone at Kaesong, just north of the South Korean border, where several small companies from the South already employ North Koreans to make clothing, footwear and household goods. Authorities declined to let Western reporters visit it, permitting only a glimpse from a highway bridge a mile away.
Those who are investing are taking a long-term view. Singaporean entrepreneur Richard Savage was looking at least five years into the future in 2001, when he formed a joint venture tree plantation with the Ministry of Foreign Trade. The company, Evergreen Kormax Paulownia Ltd., is 30 percent-owned by the government, which has assigned Savage 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) on a 50-year lease with an option to extend for 20 more.
Savage, 58, says he, family members, friends and a few other investors have put $3 million into the project so far. Savage says he hopes that by the time the paulownia trees mature — they grow as fast as 7 centimeters (2.85 inches) a day on his farm, and some may be ready for harvesting five years after planting — he’ll be able to sell the wood in a unified Korean market.
When the Northern economy takes off, the first beneficiary will be the building industry, he says. “That’s why I’m in timber,” he says, adding that his fallback plan is to sell the wood to China, Japan and South Korea.
It’s not the first venture in North Korea for Savage, who wears a cowboy hat and whose e-mail moniker is WildRichSavage. In 1994, he introduced North Korean officials to Loxley Pcl, a Thai telecommunications company. In 1995, an affiliate formed for the purpose, Loxley Pacific Co., signed a joint venture agreement with North Korea’s post and telecommunications ministry to create modern telecommunications in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone. The venture earns about $1 million a year, Loxley Pacific Chief Financial Officer C.C. Kuei, 56, says.
Mining for Gold
North Korea’s 1992 Foreign Investment Law guaranteed that foreign investors’ shares of profits could be repatriated, a promise that’s now being tested by Kumsan Joint Venture Co., a gold mining concern that’s half owned by a Singapore-led group of Asian investors and half owned by Hungsong Economic Group, a large trading, mining and manufacturing group in Pyongyang that’s controlled by North Korea’s military.
Roger Barrett, a Beijing-based British consultant, has helped arrange financing and technology for Kumsan. Barrett, 50, introduced Kumsan to the foreign investors, whom he declined to identify.
The company used its investment to buy secondhand mining equipment from Australia in 2004 for the venture’s mine 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level near the city of Hamhung. In the first year the new equipment was used, Barrett says, the mine produced about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of gold, half of which the foreign investors took out of the country. He says doing business with North Koreans has proved to be absolutely normal. “It’s working very well,” he says.
The business environment in North Korea is surprisingly welcoming, says Nigel Cowie, 43, a former HSBC Holdings Plc banker who was hired a decade ago by Peregrine Investment Holdings Ltd. to start North Korea’s only foreign-run bank.
When Peregrine collapsed in 1998, Cowie and the North Korean joint venture partner kept the local unit operating. He and three other investors bought Peregrine’s 70 percent stake in it from the firm’s liquidators in 2000. Cowie, who’s general manager of what’s now called Daedong Credit Bank, says the bank has about $10 million in assets and has only foreigners as customers, mostly Chinese, Japanese and Western individuals and institutions. Only North Korean-owned banks can do business with state enterprises and North Korean individuals.
Better Living Conditions
Living conditions for expatriates have improved significantly in the past three or four years, Cowie says over a meal of Korean barbecue in the capital’s Koryo Hotel. “For me, personally, it’s things like creature comforts, more shops, Internet, e-mail,” he says. While the Internet is available to foreigners, it is forbidden to most North Koreans.
Cowie says his biggest challenge at the bank comes from outside North Korea. In September, the U.S. Treasury Department barred U.S. financial institutions from dealing with a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, that it said had been “a willing pawn” in corrupt North Korean activities and represented a risk for money laundering and other financial crimes.
The bank and North Korea both denied the charges, but the Macau government took over the bank and announced it would provide no services to North Korea in the future. Cowie says the action tied up a big chunk of Daedong Credit Bank’s customers’ assets because Banco Delta Asia had been a main correspondent bank for North Korean banks.
The Treasury Department in October broadened its dragnet by ordering a freeze of the assets, wherever in the world the U.S. could assert its jurisdiction, of eight North Korean companies it suspected of involvement in proliferating weapons of mass destruction.
The department explained its action in an Oct. 21 statement on its Web site: “The designations announced today are part of the ongoing interagency effort by the United States Government to combat WMD trafficking by blocking the property of entities and individuals that engage in proliferation activities and their support networks.”
North Korea sought to connect the Treasury actions to Washington’s position in the six-party talks. The country’s Korean Central News Agency, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said on Dec. 2 that “lifting the financial sanctions against the DPRK is essential for creating an atmosphere for implementing the joint statement and a prerequisite to the progress of the six-party talks.”
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy to the talks, had said in a Nov. 11 press conference that the asset freeze wasn’t directly related to the talks.
Money Laundering Banned
Cowie says he doubts the U.S. action was intended to harm Daedong, which had already issued a manual prohibiting money laundering. He says he fears such U.S. actions could damp investor enthusiasm for North Korea. “It can cause the people doing legitimate business to just give up,” he says.
Cowie isn’t packing up to leave, though. Neither is Felix Abt, a Swiss native who heads a new European Business Association in Pyongyang. “I am very busy with visiting foreign business delegations,” Abt, 50, says. “Take it as a sign that the economy is developing and that more foreign business activities are under way.”
Outsiders’ investment on capitalism’s farthest frontier is gradually bringing benefits to North Koreans, too, says Savage, the tree farmer. “I can’t convert the whole country, but for the people who work for me, I’m giving them a better standard of living,” he says. “Slowly, people will prefer not to work for the government.”
If Savage and his fellow pioneers have their way, it’s only a matter of time before capitalism takes root in North Korea.