Archive for the ‘Aminex’ Category

Aminex to begin oil exploration in the DPRK

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

UPDATE 2: According to Yonhap:

North Korea has inked a 10-year contract with British oil and gas company Aminex to explore and extract oil on the seabed off the country’s east coast, the Financial Times (FT) in London reported on June 1.

For the deal, North Korea presented Singapore-registered Chosun Energy as its representative to establish a 50-50 joint venture, Korex, with Aminex, the FT said, noting a filing with Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.

Chosun Energy is an investment holding company operated by North Korea with a paid-up capital of US$1.2 million, according to the newspaper. But the newspaper did not elaborate further details on the company.

Korex will search for oil in an area of 50,681 square kilometers (20,272 square miles) in parts of North Korea’s east coast, Aminex said in a statement.

The contract with the British company, which is listed in London and Dublin, was signed around mid-May in London by officials from the North’s oil company and a head official for Aminex.

“Officials from North Korea’s state oil company traveled to London two weeks ago to conclude the 10-year contract. Lord Alton, chairman of Britain’s parliamentary North Korea group, says he showed the officials around parliament,” the FT added.

North Korea has contacted foreign companies and investors to attract foreign capital for searching for its rich natural resources, including crude oil. In 1997, the North claimed it had reserves of 5 to 40 billion barrels of oil.

North Korea has maintained ties with Animex since 1998. Aminex has been hunting for potential oil reserves in the North Korean portion of the Yellow sea since it signed with the country for joint oil and gas development in January 2005.

UPDATE 1: According to the AFP:

The head of a London-based energy firm that signed a deal to search for oil off North Korea said on Thursday he hoped to start exploring in a year but was closely monitoring tensions on the peninsula.

Aminex PLC executive chairman Brian Hall told AFP he expected “field work in about a year” off the communist nation’s east coast and aimed to “find substantial reserves”.

However, relations on the peninsula have become strained after North Korea was accused of carrying out a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March that left 46 sailors dead and stoked fears of an armed conflict.

Pyongyang has denied involvement in the sinking and threatened war in response to a trade suspension and other reprisals by the South.

Asked about the timing of the North Korea contract, Hall said “we have been working with (the) North Koreans for over a decade and an agreement such as the one we have recently signed takes many months to negotiate”.

He added: “Naturally we will keep a very close eye on the tensions on the peninsula, as we have done during previous incidents, but our project is of a long-term nature and well thought through.”

Aminex announced last week that an associate company had signed a 10-year contract with North Korea to search for oil in an area of about 50,681 square kilometres (20,272 square miles) in the Korean East Sea.

Hall declined to give an estimate of the potential deposits.

The contract was signed by Korex — a 50-50 venture between Aminex and Singapore-registered Chosun Energy — and the Korean Oil Exploration Company, the North’s state oil firm.

Victor Shum, an analyst with energy consultancy Purvin and Gertz, said there was every chance that oil would be found in the area but stressed the reserves must be of a significant size in order for exploration to progress further.

“The question is whether any oil reserves that may be discovered there are going to be economically viable to extract,” Singapore-based Shum told AFP.

“I think there has been interest certainly by oil companies so there is therefore a possibility of something there … So far the production isn’t large,” he said.

Aminex, with listings on the London and Irish stock exchanges, describes itself as an upstream oil and gas company with concessions in several countries including the United States, Kenya and Egypt.

According to a filing with Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority obtained by AFP, Aminex’s partner Chosun Energy is an investment holding company with a paid-up capital of 1.2 million dollars.

It listed its address as the German Centre in Singapore, a building that hosts small and medium-sized foreign companies, and named three directors — an American, one Briton and a Singaporean.

But staff at the German Centre told AFP the company had moved out.

Singapore is a major financial centre and corporate hub, attracting companies from all over the world because of the ease of doing business and access to funding.

North Korea, one of the world’s most impoverished countries, is starved of energy and foreign exchange after decades of isolation as well as economic sanctions, but is believed by US officials to have up to six nuclear weapons.

South Korea’s ban on most trade with North Korea in response to the ship sinking will cost the communist state hundreds of millions of dollars a year, according to figures from the Seoul-based Korea Development Institute.

ORIGINAL POST: According to the Financial Times:

Aminex, listed in London and Dublin, has formed a company, Korex, to pursue the project jointly with Chosun Energy, a Singapore-listed company that identifies James Passin as one of its directors, according to a filing with Singapore’s Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority.

Mr Passin is a New York-based fund manager. His Firebird Global Master Fund II half owns Chosun Energy and targets resource deals in frontier markets.

Officials from North Korea’s state oil company travelled to London two weeks ago to conclude the 10-year contract. Lord Alton, chairman of Britain’s parliamentary North Korea group, says he showed the officials around parliament.

Brian Hall, chairman of Aminex, acknowledged the contract had been concluded at a sensitive time given the rising tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang, but stressed he had opened ties with energy-starved North Korea in 1998. Since then, securing output rights from an exploration block had been “stop-go”.

Additional Information/thoughts: 
1. Here is a previous short post on Aminex.

2. The economics literature overwhelmingly suggests that natural resource windfalls are generally bad news for weak states/developing countries—often fueling corruption, repression, and violence.  The windfall almost never translates into better general working conditions or increases in general income (Botswana being an exception).  There are plenty of papers out there making this point (“Natural Resource Curse”), so feel free to refer to your favorite.

3. I would be weary of building an offshore oil rig in the DPRK.

4.  If oil is discovered in Korea’s East Sea, look for Japan, South Korea, and Russia to begin “drinking from their milkshake”.

Read the full stories here:
Oil firm says N.Korea exploration to start in a year
AFP
Bernice Han
6/2/2010

Anglo-Irish group seeks North Korean oil
Financial Times
Christian Oliver, Kevin Brown
6/1/2010

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Aminex sells half Korean interests

Monday, May 10th, 2010

UPDATE 2:  (5/19/2010) According to Offshore-mag.com:

LONDON — Aminex says a delegation from North Korea is in London negotiating a new production-sharing agreement (PSA) covering activity in the East Korea Bay basin.

Chosun Energy has become a 50% shareholder in Korex, Aminex’s subsidiary for the region, and will become increasingly involved in management of this project.

Assuming agreement for the PSA can be reached with the government of North Korea, work will start as soon as possible on the next phase of exploration in the area.

UPDATE 1:  A reader passes along a very helpful comment (Thanks!):

I think that some lazy journalism on behalf of the Irish paper has mistakenly linked Colin McAskill of the UK to this.

If you do a background check on Chosun Energy via Singapore Companies House, you will see that it is controlled by a.o. James Passin (an American) of Firebird. McAskill is not on the board and, as far as I can see, there is no connection to McAskill’s Chosun fund.

Interesting to see the Americans preparing to invest in NK!

DYOR of course, I may be entirely wrong of course:)

ORIGINAL POST: According to the Independent (Ireland):

Brian Hall’s AIM-listed resources firm Aminex has agreed to sell a 50 per cent stake in its North Korean interests to a fund fronted by one of the few westerners to have dealt with its erratic leader Kim Jong II.

Aminex received close to €600,000 for a 50 per cent stake in its Korex vehicle, which is currently trying to develop oil assets in the sea around North Korea.

Its new partner, Chosun Energy, is controlled by a fund backed by British businessman Colin McAskill.

Mr McAskill is one of the few westerners with access to the dictator, having advised the country on debt and banking issues.e a prisoner in some re-education camp”.

Read the full story here:
Aminex sells half Korean interests
Independent
Nick Webb
5/9/2010

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DPRK not about to collapse

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Newsweek has an interesting article which makes the case that the DPRK economy is not as bad as the public tends to think.  According to the article:

…North Korea isn’t broke—and its economy has been moving away from collapse in recent years-. The Hermit Kingdom may not be getting rich—the CIA estimates its GDP at roughly $40 billion, ranking 96th in the world. But it’s not failing either, and for the past decade, its economy has grown at an average rate of about 1.5 percent a year, according to South Korean statistics. While Seoul estimates that the North’s GDP shrank by 2.3 percent last year, some analysts say it actually expanded, arguing that South Korea’s recent figures on the North are deflated for political purposes.

To understand how the Dear Leader has managed this, you must first drop a few of the myths surrounding his country. First, the North Koreans haven’t been living in caves for the past two decades, nor is their economy de-industrializing, as is sometimes reported. Instead, with help from Beijing, Pyongyang has revamped its outdated infrastructure in recent years and repaired the mining facilities that were battered by massive floods during the mid-’90s. It now aims to shift from recovery to growth, with a focus on steel production, mining and light-industrial manufacturing.

Second, the North doesn’t have to rely on the black market to support itself. True, Pyongyang has sold missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, and annual revenue from such exports is roughly $100 million, but analysts say that other illicit activities like drug trafficking and counterfeiting add very little to that sum. According to a former U.S. diplomat in East Asia who asked not to be named discussing sensitive intelligence, during the Bush years Washington investigated the oft-heard counterfeiting accusations, and found that the notes in question had actually been produced privately by former Chinese military officials, in China. “The Treasury Department couldn’t find a single shred of hard evidence pointing to North Korean production of counterfeit money,” the American says.

The biggest myth is that North Korea remains isolated. Despite supposedly comprehensive sanctions, Pyongyang today has diplomatic and commercial relations with more than 150 countries, including most European Union members. North Korea trades its abundant gold reserves—estimated at 1,000 to 2,000 tons—in cities like London, Zurich and Hong Kong, and buys and sells shares on the New York Stock Exchange via a legitimate London-based brokerage firm it essentially owns. While there are no figures on the volume of such transactions, the former U.S. diplomat says that such activities are “a substantial source of hard currency for North Korea.” In recent years, European firms have also begun eyeing investment opportunities there; In 2004, the London-based energy firm Aminex signed a 20-year deal with Pyongyang for exclusive rights to explore on- and offshore oil-and-gas deposits. Other companies are looking for ways to exploit the North’s cheap labor supply, and while most of these deals have yet to take off for technical and political reasons, ties to the outside world are expanding. In 2008, the country’s overall trade rose 30 percent from the previous year, reaching a record $3.8 billion, including imports of $2.7 billion, according to Seoul’s Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

North Korea has proved adept at avoiding restrictions: when Tokyo slapped it with sanctions five years ago, Pyongyang simply reshuffled its deals, turning to the BRIC economies as well as South Korea and Singapore. Meanwhile, China now accounts for nearly three quarters of North Korea’s total trade, sending it crude oil, petroleum and manufactured goods in exchange for coal, steel and rare metals like tungsten and magnesite. The North’s natural resources have become a major growth engine: the Musan mine in the country’s northwest is now said to be one of the largest iron-ore fields in Asia, and could eventually yield 10 million tons of ore a year.

Finally, there’s the southern connection. Despite deteriorating relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, factories at the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex are still operating at full gear, earning the North about $35 million annually—enough for eight or nine No-dong missiles. And that figure was projected (before the current crisis hit) to jump to $100 million by next year, says Lim Eul Chul of Seoul’s Kyungnam University.

I should point out that the CIA estimate of the DPRK’s GDP is among the highest.  Most other estimates are below $30 billion for 2008.

Read the full article here:
How Kim Affords His Nukes: The myth of a failing economy.
Newsweek
5/30/2009

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North Korea’s Profession: Entrepreneur

Sunday, November 5th, 2006

From Businessweek:
Joe McDonald
11/5/2006

In the midst of tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program, a Western company is there searching for oil. Another just bought a bank.

“North Korea is hungry for business,” said Roger Barrett, the British founder of Beijing-based Korea Business Consultants, who recently took 11 Asian and European clients to Pyongyang to play golf and make contacts.

A small group of Westerners are taking on the challenge of doing business in the isolated North, hoping to get in on the ground floor as its communist rulers experiment with economic reform.

The obstacles are daunting. A Stalinist dictatorship, bureaucracy and language barriers. Foreign sanctions that block most financial transfers, making it hard to get paid and to get supplies. And now worries that United Nations sanctions imposed after North Korea’s Oct. 9 nuclear test could be expanded to a general clampdown on trade.

But the Westerners talk positively about the North as a business environment, with skilled workers and leaders who they say welcome foreign investment.

“They are very skillful and hardworking,” said Felix Abt, a Swiss businessman who oversees two ventures in Pyongyang, one that makes business and game software for sale in Europe and another that makes antibiotics and painkillers for the domestic market. “It’s sometimes faster to get licenses and necessary approvals here than it is in China or Vietnam.”

Barrett said that even as the U.N. Security Council debated the latest sanctions on the North, he got inquiries from investors interested in its rich mineral resources and low-cost manufacturing work force.

“Investors are rushing into China, but labor costs there are escalating, and companies are looking for an alternative,” Barrett said. North Korea “has absolutely the capabilities to take off like South Korea.”

So far the largest foreign business community in North Korea is from China, its main source of trade and aid.

South Korea accounts for most of the North’s foreign investment, with stakes totaling $620 million in an export-manufacturing zone and a resort for foreigners. China’s investments total just $31 million, according to the Chinese Commerce Ministry.

U.S. regulations allow American companies to trade with North Korea under limited conditions, though tensions between the governments and lack of diplomatic relations raises the risk of doing business. Britain, Germany, Sweden and other Western governments, meanwhile, have official relations with Pyongyang.

North Korea’s foreign trade has risen sharply, though the total was less than $4 billion last year, according to South Korean and Chinese government figures. Trade with the South soared by more than 50 percent in 2005 to just over $1 billion.

Most trade is carried out by North Korean state companies, not private entrepreneurs. And some partners are shying away. Trade with Japan, once the North’s No. 1 trading partner, tumbled from $1.3 billion in 2001 to just $200 million last year amid tensions with Tokyo over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and ’80s.

The Europeans’ chamber of commerce in Pyongyang had 12 members when it was launched last year. They include delivery company DHL Express, an Italian law firm and a German venture founded in 2003 to provide Internet access to foreign businesses in Pyongyang.

This tentative foothold follows the slow pace of economic reform in North Korea. Only in 2002 did North Korean leader Kim Jong Il allow limited free enterprise to revive a decrepit economy, which teetered in the 1990s following the loss of Soviet aid and then collapsed amid widespread food shortages. Still, foreign observers say officials are reluctant to give up control, despite prodding from Beijing, which wants faster reforms to reduce its ally’s dependence on aid.

Abt, the Swiss businessman, moved to Pyongyang in 2002 after seven years working in Vietnam, another Asian communist economy in the throes of reform.

“I heard that some economic reforms were in the pipeline, and I was quite thrilled to experience the beginning,” said Abt.

Now his Vietnamese wife takes their 14-month-old daughter to play at an international school. After work, he goes out to sing karaoke with North Korean co-workers.

But Abt has felt the bite of efforts to pressure the North.

Foreign banks have been leery since Washington last year sanctioned Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, which the U.S. said helped the North launder money. China told its banks this month to curtail financial transfers to or from the North.

“It’s getting difficult to make bank transfers to suppliers or to get money from customers,” Abt said.

He worries that the factory might have to shut down if U.N. sanctions block imports of required chemicals on the grounds that they also could have military uses.

Barrett said his clients have lost access to $11 million in Banco Delta Asia accounts that were frozen by the U.S. sanctions.

Colin McAskill, a British businessman who has done business with the North since the 1970s, is lobbying Washington to fine-tune its sanctions so the bank’s customers can withdraw money that was made legally.

McAskill is chairman of Hong Kong-based Koryo Asia Ltd., which said in September it was buying a 70 percent controlling stake in Daedong Credit Bank, North Korea’s first foreign-owned financial institution. The bank, which is 30 percent owned by a North Korean bank, serves foreign companies and has accounts at Banco Delta Asia.

North Korea also has turned to Western investors in hopes of developing oil resources and reducing its near-total reliance on China for fuel. It awarded a 20-year exploration concession last year to Aminex plc, a London firm.

Aminex is helping the North Korean government deal with other foreign companies, and in exchange gets to pick where it will drill for oil, its chief executive, Brian Hall, said by phone from London.

Aminex hasn’t felt any effects from the nuclear tumult, Hall said.

“We have good relations and no problems with the agreements but are closely watching the political situation,” he said.

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Oil in the DPRK’s waters

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

Hat tip to the Korea Liberator:

China and North Korea announce joint efforts to extract oil from the Yellow Sea. According to Yahoo News:

Tuesday June 6, 12:07 PM
China and North Korea have agreed to explore jointly for oil in the Yellow Sea that borders both countries, the Chinese foreign ministry said.

‘China and North Korea have agreed on the joint development of oil resources in the border sea and signed a joint development agreement between governments,’ ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told journalists.

Liu gave no further details other than to say the two nations will continue work on the details of the arrangements.

Another foreign ministry official later confirmed the area to be jointly developed will be in the Yellow Sea.

The announcement came as North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-Sun ended an eight-day visit to China today, a trip that Liu described as ‘successful’ while giving away few other details.

According to a report issued in December by the Washington-based Center for International Policy, North Korea has already laid claim to three northernmost Yellow Sea basins thought to hold oil.

The North Koreans had discovered up to 3 bln tons of recoverable oil and gas reserves in the Yellow Sea off its coast, the center said, citing a report by Chinese authors in the Marine Geology Letters journal.

China’s foreign ministry gave few details about Paek’s visit to China, other than to say he met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing.

But how much reserves does the DPRK have?  According to the Center for International Policy’s Asia Program,

One-third of 15 exploratory wells have shown oil, and Pyongyang may be sitting on information about larger deposits.

“North Korea has found on the continental shelf of the West Bay basin an area containing 3bn tonnes (21.9bn barrels) of oil and gas reserves,” Li Yandong and Mo Jie wrote in a 2002 issue of journal Marine Geology Letters.

North Korea says these are recoverable reserves pinpointed by its own scientists, said a Chinese expert with knowledge of the situation, who declined to be named.

Even a more modest estimate of 1.2bn barrels reported by Busuph Park, an expert in North Korea’s offshore efforts, would meet centuries of current consumption, although some academics say the peninsula has almost no commercial oil.

At the North Korean embassy in Beijing, an official dismissed with a laugh reports of up to 9bn tonnes of reserves and said the country was still investigating.

Additionally, the story points out the the British company Aminex has committed to building North Korea’s oil industry.  Chief Executive Brian Hall told Reuters, “We have involved their people and are training them, so we are trying to build ourselves into the framework of things.”

“They can take a very long time to do things, we have quite a high degree of frustration sometimes. You have to be prepared to tough it out… but the prize is worth persevering for.”

UK oil firm strides into N Korea
BBC

9/20/2004

Anglo-Irish oil company Aminex has signed a 20-year deal to develop North Korea’s oil industry.

Aminex said it would provide technical assistance to North Korea. In addition, it will be permitted to explore and drill throughout the secretive country.

Should Aminex strike oil, it will get royalties on any of its own production, as well as being entitled to earnings from wells drilled by other firms.

Aminex believes its prospects of striking oil in North Korea are good.

“We all dream of making a big discovery,” chief executive Brian Hall told BBC News Online. “And if you don’t put yourself in a position where the possibilities are high, you will never do it.”

A number of potential sites are close to some of China’s most productive oil fields, he said. Announcing the contract, Aminex called North Korea as “highly prospective”.

Patience rewarded

The company, which is listed on the London and Dublin stock markets, reckons that a lack of resources has so far restricted progress in prospecting for oil the East Asian country.

North Korea “has an existing petroleum industry and several wells have been drilled onshore and offshore over a 25 year period, resulting in limited discoveries of oil,” Mr Hall.

Aminex has been looking at opportunities in North Korea since its first visit there in 2001.

It signed a deal with North Korean officials on 30 June 2004 in Pyongyang but postponed an announcement “because of a number of outstanding issues that have now been resolved”.

Mr Hall said he hoped that developing the oil industry might help to thaw international relations, which have become frosty in recent months amid concerns about the country’s nuclear programme.

“At present, relations between North Korea and the outside world are strained but the important relationship with South Korea appears to be improving and commercial co-operation is on the increase,” said Mr Hall.

“An expanding energy industry may possibly help to build bridges between North Korea and the outside world.”

Tough environment

North Korea is one of the world’s most secretive countries, and among the poorest.

Millions of are thought to have died during the famine of the late 1990s. More recently, North Korean officials have made tentative steps towards economic reforms similar to those implemented by China, one of its few allies. But tensions over the country’s nuclear programme remain a stumbling block to investment.

Aminex has existing operations in the US, Russia and Tanzania.

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North Korea’s Kim Allows Tentative Stirrings of Profit Motive

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Bloomberg
Bradley K. Martin
12/28/2005

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

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

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

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

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

Casino Pyongyang

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

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

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

Natural Resources

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

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

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

Oil Potential

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

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

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

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

Six-Party Talks

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

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

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

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

Excessive Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

China, Russia

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

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

Vietnam Example

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

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

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

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

Food Insecurity

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

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

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

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

Economic Rules

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

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

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

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

Consumers

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

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

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

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

Timber Business

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

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

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

Mining for Gold

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

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

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

Foreign-Run Bank

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

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

Better Living Conditions

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

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

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

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

`WMD Trafficking’

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

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

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

Money Laundering Banned

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

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

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

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

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