Archive for the ‘Koryo Asia Ltd.’ Category

McAskill seeking investors for Chosun Fund

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

Bradley Martin writes in Bloomberg this morning:

A U.K. businessman is seeking to raise $50 million to invest in North Korea, reviving a 2005 plan after the U.S. government removed the communist regime from its list of countries that support terrorism.

ChosunFund Pte. Ltd. will join with North Korean partners for mining and energy projects, Colin McAskill, founder of the Singapore-incorporated fund, said in an interview.

“The country holds huge natural resources but is capital starved and lacks the technology and management skills with which to develop them,” McAskill said.

North Korea’s economy collapsed in the 1990s with the demise of communist regimes in Eastern Europe that had provided aid and favorable trade terms. McAskill scrapped the original fund after U.S.-imposed sanctions that led to a freezing of North Korean deposits at international banks.

The U.S. government removed the terrorist designation last October in exchange for wider scrutiny of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Feb. 20 that ties with North Korea won’t improve as long as it continues provocative verbal attacks on South Korea.

McAskill, 69, said he has been consulting on potential North Korean projects since 1987. While the country attracts one-off investment deals such as a recent contract licensing Orascom Telecom Holding SAE to provide wireless telephone services, it has struggled to raise money from global financial markets since defaulting on overseas debt in the 1970s.

London-based emerging markets money manager Fabien Pictet & Partners Ltd. was considering a fund that would invest in South Korean companies that do business with the North. The idea is “on hold for the time being,” Jonathan Neill, managing director, said in an e-mail.

Read the full story here:
North Korea Fund Seeks $50 Million After Terror Label Removed
Bradley Martin


Ignoring Buffett, Fabien Pictet Eyes North Korea Fund

Friday, November 2nd, 2007

Bloomberg (via DPRK studies)
Bradley Martin

Fabien Pictet & Partners Ltd., a British money manager that specializes in emerging markets, plans to establish a fund focused on joint ventures in North Korea.

Fabien Pictet has applied to North Korea’s embassy in London for permission to visit Pyongyang to explore opportunities, Chief Executive Officer Richard Yarlott said in an interview. The closely held firm initially would buy into South Korean companies doing business in the north, he said.

“It would be very difficult to put more than $50 million directly into North Korea,” said Yarlott, 47, who helps manage $750 million of bonds and equities. “But it would be very easy to put $500 million into listed South Korean companies and then later, as we see specific private equity opportunities, go with them.” He declined to give further details.

A North-South agreement on economic cooperation, signed Oct. 4, may foster cross-border projects in industries such as mining and shipbuilding. Still, that prospect isn’t enough to lure billionaire investor Warren Buffett to a northern plunge.

“Things would have to change a whole lot before we can make investments,” said Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., during a visit to South Korea last week.

Buffett, who owns shares of South Korea’s Posco, Asia’s biggest steelmaker by market value, rates the nation’s stocks as “modestly cheaper” than most around the world. The benchmark Kospi index’s price-to-earnings multiple of 15.4 for current year estimated earnings is the lowest in Asia-Pacific after Thailand.

London-based Fabien Pictet, set up in 1998, invests in countries from Brazil to the Ukraine.

It started a South Korean equity fund, Three Kingdoms Korea Fund Inc., in 2004 partly to be ready for a northern push, Yarlott said.

LG Corp., Hyundai

South Korean companies — including units of LG Corp., the country’s fourth-largest industrial group, and Hyundai Corp. — have $2 billion to invest over the northern border, he said.

Three Kingdoms Korea has had a total return of 88.5 percent from April 30, 2004, to Sept. 28 this year. South Korea’s Kospi has risen 126 percent in the same period.

Foreign investment in North Korea has been legal since 1984 and repatriation of profits since 1992. The country doesn’t permit private ownership of assets and hasn’t established a stock exchange.

South Korea’s closely held Hyundai Asan Corp., which started a northern tourism business in 1998, has been reported to be struggling to avoid or reduce operating losses.

London-based Anglo-Sino Capital Partners Ltd., which in 2005 created Chosun Development and Investment Fund to focus on direct investment in North Korea, last month doubled its investment target, citing strong interest.

“We have raised the fund from $50 million to $100 million,” Colin McAskill, chairman in London of Koryo Asia Ltd., the Chosun fund adviser, said in an interview.

The fund will concentrate on direct transactions with North Korean companies that have been active internationally and have track records as foreign currency earners, he said.

Some investors say it’s too early to call North Korea an emerging market.

“I’m 77 years old and the thought that the day would come in my time — it’s very flattering but it’s a long way off,” said Buffett, also known as the “Sage of Omaha.”

Yarlott said the country was changing. “North Korea, like China, will develop a stock market,” he said.

“At this rate, even the sage will get a look-in.”


Bank Buyer Threatens N. Korea Cash Move

Tuesday, March 27th, 2007

Washington Post
William Foreman

A British investor who is buying a North Korean bank said Tuesday he is trying to block the transfer of money it holds in a Macau bank in a move that might complicate a deal with the North to shut down its nuclear programs.

North Korea refused last week to return to nuclear disarmament talks until about $25 million of its funds frozen at a Macau bank is transferred to the Bank of China.

The transfer was supposed to occur last week, but was delayed for reasons that have not been fully explained.

The British investor, Colin McAskill, told The Associated Press he “would take whatever steps necessary” to stop the unauthorized transfer of $7 million of the funds held in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia. He said he has written twice to the territory’s bank regulator, the Macau Monetary Authority, without receiving a reply.

McAskill has agreed to buy North Korea’s Daedong Credit Bank, which is majority foreign-owned, and is representing it in discussions with Macau authorities.

He denied a report that he threatened legal action but said that is an option.

Asked whether the money came from legitimate ventures, McAskill said in an e-mail, “I have answered this question many times and been widely quoted as saying, Yes it is.”

The $25 million was frozen in September 2005 after the U.S. accused Banco Delta Asia of helping North Korea launder money and handle counterfeit U.S. currency.

The move enraged the North Koreans, who boycotted the nuclear talks for more than a year. They recently returned to the negotiations after the U.S. agreed to settle the banking issue. The funds were to be transferred to a North Korean-owned account at the Bank of China to be used for humanitarian purposes in North Korea.

McAskill said Daedong wants to be allowed to move the money to a temporary account at another Macau bank and later move it one of Daedong’s correspondent banks.

The U.S. has decided to cut off Banco Delta Asia from the American financial system, and McAskill said Daedong wants to move its money before that ban takes effect in mid-April, making it difficult to transfer money out of U.S. dollar accounts.

On Monday, a senior Treasury Department official held talks with Chinese officials to try untangle the dispute over North Korea’s frozen funds.

Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, met officials from China’s Foreign Ministry to discuss the money held at Banco Delta Asia, said Glaser’s spokeswoman, Molly Millerwise.

Glaser’s meeting was “positive and cordial,” with officials focused on “solutions to the implementation matters and our common interest in addressing this issue as quickly as possible,” Millerwise said in an e-mail.

A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said Glaser met with officials from the People’s Bank of China and the China Banking Regulatory Commission, but it gave no details.

The U.S. agreed to let the money be transferred to a North Korean account at the Bank of China in Beijing, but the release was delayed by the Chinese bank’s concerns about accepting money that had been linked to counterfeiting and money-laundering.


Who owns the Banco Delta money?

Saturday, March 24th, 2007

Chris Gelken has an interesting insight into the Banko Delta funds…

“It was quite a rude awakening to hear on the news that my money was going to be used for charity,” the holder of an account with the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia told me on the condition that I didn’t reveal his identity.

“What needs to be understood,” he said, “is that not all the funds belong to the North Korean government, but that a substantial amount belongs to private customers.”

Bloomberg quoted Colin McAskill, chairman of the London-based fund Koryo Asia Ltd, as saying he contacted the Macau Monetary Authority warning them that the money held by private businesses based in Pyongyang did not belong to the North Korean government and must not be included in the proposed transfer to settle the 18-month dispute between the North and the U.S. Treasury.


The Choson Development Fund

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

The Chosun Development & Investment Fund is a privately structured Limited Partnership Fund incorporated in the United Kingdom and based in London.

Specifically designed for investment in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK”) or (“North Korea”). Chosun Fund is now beginning to seek subscriptions from qualifying investors. This follows the authorisation of Chosun Fund’s Fund Manager, Anglo-Sino Capital Partners Limited on 19th May 2006 by the UK Financial Services Authority.

Chosun Fund will concentrate entirely on the DPRK and will channel external investment into the economic development of that country.

The exclusive Investment Advisor to Chosun Fund Fund manager is Hong Kong based Koryo Asia Limited (“Koryo Asia”) whose team of principals has over 25 years experience of commercial & financial dealings with the DPRK and in Asia generally.

The principals working with Chosun Fund will initially be concentrating on those areas of the DPRK economy with which they are familiar and which they believe can be developed quickly and efficiently to generate foreign exchange cash flow for the DPRK.

As a completely private initiative it is intended that Chosun Fund is a fully transparent financial vehicle that will assist the DPRK develop its legitimate economic activities along internationally accepted lines and also provide an attractive return to investors.

This first-to-market fund has the capability to deliver a significant return on investment in the near term and considerably enhanced returns after the expected resolution of the current nuclear issue and other problems. This should result in a substantial expansion in the economy of North-East Asia’s last emerging economy.

About the Fund

The idea of an investment fund specifically for The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) began at a conference in July 2000 held by the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, and entitled “Engagement and Development in the DPRK” , to which Colin McAskill (McAskill), the originator of this project, was invited because of his experience in dealing with the DPRK.   The conference was also attended by Mr. James Kelly, prior to him joining the US State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the first George W. Bush administration.   Following the conference McAskill was called to the US State Department by a special adviser in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs (in the administration of President Clinton), who wished to talk to him about realistic prospects for business in the DPRK – an issue of concern at the time since the “Perry process” held out foreign investment and business as one of the benefits of the DPRK’s engagement with the outside world.

McAskill said that he had come to the conclusion that a private initiative to set up an investment fund, which could initiate or participate in repeated dealings in the DPRK, and thus be seen by the ruling hierarchy as too important to alienate through non-performance, could avoid many of the pitfalls of investing in, or dealing with, the DPRK.   The State Department Official agreed with his analysis and encouraged McAskill to set up such a fund.

Partners were gathered and engaged to set up such a fund. Aware that although this was completely a private business initiative it engendered a certain political sensitivity, McAskill met with US Assistant Secretary Kelly in September of 2001 to brief him on progress.   Kelly had no objection to such a fund as long as it kept within the parameters of US law and asked to be kept informed. By the autumn of 2002 a fund based in the US was ready to be launched but, with the serious deterioration in political relations between the US and the DPRK in October 2002, several partners in the US asked if they could postpone their active participation.

As a result of this, the planning of the fund was reconstituted with the emphasis deliberately shifted to North East Asia, with new partners in Hong Kong and China as well as with experienced fund managers in London.

McAskill has kept the US government informed of the Fund’s progress. Similar to the close contact kept with the US State Department, McAskill has also kept both the UK Foreign Office and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) government fully informed, the latter through contact with the South Korean Ambassador in London as well as the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Ministry of Unification in Seoul. McAskill’s partners in China have similarly informed the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China).

While the organisers and participants in the Fund fully understand the decision to keep relevant governments informed as a matter of courtesy, and to comply with any laws or regulations by those governments that affect the Fund, it should be emphasised that the Fund is a purely private business initiative. Its establishment in London, and the authorisation and regulation of its Fund Manager by the UK Financial Services Authority will ensure complete transparency.

McAskill has been involved in business dealings with the DPRK since 1978 (his first visit to the DPRK was in 1979/1980), primarily in coordinating the emergence of parts of the DPRK’s business community into western markets. This included the certification and sale of DPRK bullion and other minerals in the London market, and also in assisting other significant DPRK state entities in their dealings with western institutions, especially European banks, over their defaulted debts. Dealings with the DPRK became somewhat moribund in the 1990s due to internal political developments there, coupled with the natural disasters that overran the country causing widespread damage and a general contraction of the DPRK economy. During this period McAskill continued to maintain contact with senior associates in both business and banking institutions in Pyongyang.

The DPRK leadership has officially declared that it will pursue a controlled opening to commerce and is seeking foreign capital. In 2002 it introduced internal reforms that allowed the economy to become more market orientated. The reforms are now entrenched and gradually expanding to a point where most outside experts on the DPRK believe they have become irreversible.

The management, partners, and directors of the Fund understand the risk inherent in dealing with the DPRK, but also believe that the Fund can achieve returns commensurate with that risk. The Fund will seek initially to deal with and invest in key areas of the DPRK economy that have been known to operate successfully in the past, concentrating on transactions in sectors that were proven hard currency exporters into Western markets, mainly minerals, but have been subject to recent performance constraints.  Later dealings will take advantage of a wide variety of opportunities that are expected to become available as the DPRK economy opens and develops.

The DPRK government is aware of these developments, at first via senior DPRK officials engaged in the six-party talks in Beijing whom McAskill met with in July 2005. This was followed by meetings in Beijing in December 2005 and again in Asia in April 2006 with a special envoy sent from Pyongyang to establish direct contact. And, as a result of the earlier meeting, McAskill’s partner and management team member in China was invited to meet the DPRK Ambassador in Beijing on 15th August 2005.

The creation of the Chosun Fund and the authorisation & regulation by the UK Financial Services Authority of Chosun Fund’s Fund Manager has now formally been announced to the DPRK government.


North Korea bites a golden bullet

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Korea Times
Donald Kirk

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.”


Under bank sanctions, North Korea looks to gold exports

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

Christian Science monitor
Donald Kirk

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.”


North Korea’s Profession: Entrepreneur

Sunday, November 5th, 2006

From Businessweek:
Joe McDonald

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.


UK investor presses U.S. to ease N.Korea sanctions

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

From Reuters:

The chairman of British investment advisory firm Koryo Asia, which has bought North Korea’s Daedong Credit Bank, said on Tuesday it was pressing the U.S. to ease sanctions against the isolated communist country.

Colin McAskill confirmed to Reuters a newspaper report that Koryo Asia had taken over Daedong Credit Bank. Koryo is also an adviser to the Chosun Fund, which invests in North Korean assets.

“We will take on the U.S. over the sanctions stand-off. They’ve had it too much their own way without anyone questioning what they are putting out,” McAskill said in a report in the Financial Times on Tuesday.

Asked later by Reuters about the reported remarks, McAskill said, “That is true,” but declined to comment further.

North Korea defied international warnings and test-fired seven missiles in early July. Dubbed part of an “axis of evil” by U.S. President George W. Bush, the heavily militarised state enforces tight censorship and a strong personality cult of its leader Kim Jong-il.

The United States imposed strict economic sanctions on North Korea in 1950, some of which were eased under the Clinton administration in the 1990s.

The United Nations passed a resolution in July this year imposing sanctions on the country, demanding that North Korea suspend ballistic missile tests.

Daedong Credit Bank has most of its cash frozen under U.S. trade sanctions imposed last September, the Financial Times said. However, its new UK-based owners want to demonstrate that the accounts were earned legitimately and get sanctions lifted.

McAskill has asked U.S. officials to scrutinse the records of Daedong and has written to the U.S. Treasury department about the matter, the newspaper said.

The latest move comes after Anglo-Sino Capital, a firm based in London which is involved in day-to-day management of the Chosun Fund, won regulatory approval from Britain’s Financial Services Authority in May this year.

The Chosun Fund aims initially to raise $50 million, eventually rising to a total asset size of around $100 million, targeting, for example, a possible revival in North Korea’s financial and mining sectors.


Koryo Asia to Buy U.S.-Sanctioned North Korean Bank (Update2)

Friday, September 1st, 2006

Bradley K. Martin

Koryo Asia Ltd., a London-based financial adviser, said it will buy North Korea’s Daedong Credit Bank for an undisclosed amount and lobby the U.S. to lift sanctions on the foreign-run bank.

Daedong Credit is among North Korean banks whose accounts in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia SARL have been frozen since September 2005 after the U.S. Treasury Department alleged Banco Delta laundered money from North Korea and worked with front companies trafficking drugs for the communist state. The Macau government has taken control of the bank.

The value of Daedong Credit “would be enhanced if we can resolve the sanctions issue with the U.S.,” Koryo Asia chairman Colin McAskill said in an e-mail interview. Koryo Asia is adviser to London-based Chosun Development & Investment Fund LP, which aims to raise $50 million for investments in North Korea.

North Korea has demanded removal of the financial sanctions before it will return to six-nation talks to prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. and China urged North Korea to resume the talks that include South Korea, Russia and Japan, after the country in July tested a missile that may have the capability to reach the U.S.

Daedong Credit’s general manager Nigel Cowie confirmed the sale and that he would stay on. He declined further comment. Cowie said in an interview last year that the bank’s assets –including those frozen in Macau — totaled around $10 million.

A former HSBC Holding Plc banker, Cowie was hired in the mid- 1990s by Peregrine Investment Holdings Ltd. to start the bank. Following Peregrine’s 1998 collapse, Cowie and three other investors bought the 70 percent foreign stake from the liquidator in 2000.


Koryo Asia signed an agreement to buy the majority share in Daedong through a wholly owned subsidiary that McAskill, 65, did not name. The majority shareholders had approached Koryo Asia to propose the sale, he said.

McAskill said he won’t take a direct management role in the bank, instead serving as a consultant to persuade U.S. officials to release as much as $7 million of Daedong’s and its customers’ assets in Macau. The total of frozen North Korean bank assets in Macau is about $24 million.

McAskill’s argument that Daedong Credit Bank serves only foreign, not North Korean, customers and that its transactions are legal and transparent may not win an audience at the U.S. Treasury Department.

“Given the regime’s counterfeiting of U.S. currency, narcotics trafficking and use of accounts worldwide to conduct proliferation-related transactions, the line between illicit and licit North Korean money is nearly invisible,” Stuart Levey, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said last month.

Asked if the purchase of Daedong Credit Bank is a big gamble, McAskill said, “Not a gamble — a gambit.”

He said his strategy is to demonstrate that Levey’s blanket condemnation of all North Korea-related finance is counter to U.S. interests.

Exempting Daedong on its merits from the sanctions would bring a potentially big payoff, he said, “an atmosphere in which Kim Jong-il can consider a return to the six-party talks.”

Anselmo Teng, chairman of the Macau Monetary Authority, didn’t immediately return a phone call and e-mail to his office seeking comment on the sale and any impact the ownership change may have on the status of Daedong’s Banco Delta Asia accounts.

Korean Investment

McAskill said the Chosun Development & Investment Fund LP aims to raise funds for “transaction-based” investments, such as procuring mining equipment and receiving mine output in return.

“We believe we will fully subscribe the fund from investors in Europe, Asia, the People’s Republic of China and possibly South Korea,” he said. “Global investor interest in this potential emerging market was not affected by the missile launches in July,” he said, without giving details.

Taking over the bank “gives us a legitimate foothold and provides a conduit for investment in the country, whether through Chosun Fund or other sources,” McAskill said. “In the long term, the goal is to facilitate the resuscitation of the legitimate economy.”

Chosun Fund, managed by London-based Anglo-Sino Capital Partners Limited, is denominated in U.S. dollars. If the sanctions issue cannot be resolved, the fund has the option to switch to denomination in euros or pounds sterling, McAskill said.

“There’s no point in taking in U.S. funds if the United States is going to try and block them,” he said.

Room 39

The minority owner of Daedong Credit is Korea Daesong Bank, a unit of North Korea’s Daesong Group.

A 1995 U.S. government study cited close ties between Daesong and Room 39, an office of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party said to handle foreign exchange-gathering projects for the country’s leader.

McAskill said the minority owner does not run the bank. Daedong is “not only majority foreign-owned and foreign- controlled but also foreign-managed,” he said, adding he was given access to all of Daedong’s activities and concluded it’s a legitimate business.

Only North Korean-owned banks can do business with state enterprises and North Korean individuals, Cowie said last year, so Daedong’s customers are all foreign — mostly Chinese, Japanese and Western individuals and institutions.

As of Aug. 17, that had not convinced Levey at the U.S. Treasury.

“The U.S. continues to encourage financial institutions to carefully assess the risk of holding any North Korea-related accounts,” he said.

The undersecretary traveled in Asia in July to push that line, which resulted in the closure of some North Korean banks’ accounts in Vietnam.