On my journey to Pyongyang a Beijing receptionist remarked that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is very much like China was 25 years ago. And as the motorcade of China’s president Hu Jintao passed thousands of flower-waving North Koreans on his visit to the world’s most secretive and politically isolated country at the end of October, he may well have agreed.
Visiting Pyongyang is like going back decades in a time machine, to a land with no advertising, no Nokia, Microsoft or McDonald’s billboards and almost no cars. Impressive grand avenues and massive public monuments dominate the landscape but there is no new construction or shops.
The streets are scrubbed clean by hand and are full of hundreds of orderly people wearing their ‘Great Leader’ badges and walking everywhere. Curiously, bicycles are discouraged because of bad accidents and the government encourages power walking for good health, or so I am told. In a country said to spend 30% of its GDP on defence, there is no visual military presence (or overt police presence) in the capital at all.
The ‘traffic ladies’ standing at major intersections are a welcome replacement for traffic lights but there are precious few cars to direct.
Questions greatly outnumber answers in this capital where visitors are duly dazzled by the spectacular grand mass gymnastics and artistic performance (called Arirang) by almost 70,000 children in the massive 150,000-seat May Day Stadium. But visitors are also aware of serious food shortages and cannot ignore the capital’s tallest building, a magnificent 105-floor pyramid tower with a crane on top, left unfinished many years ago, I was informed, due to financial problems.
Winds of change
Whether the DPRK is seen as the last Stalinist communist state or as a Confucian nationalist monarchy or even, as it describes itself, as a “powerful socialist nation”, visitors can feel the winds of change, particularly on the economic front. For more than 50 years the iconic stature of the late ‘Great Leader’ Kim Il Sung and that of his successor son Kim Jong Il have dominated the political landscape; the question going forward is how the country’s dire economic circumstances can be improved and whether the regime has the capability to create the new structures needed.
Pyongyang was playing host not only to Mr Hu but also to an increasing number of foreign delegations and journalists, all keen to understand the trends taking place in probably the last country to have massive pictures of Marx and Lenin hanging outside its Ministry of Trade. For many, however, the current focus is progress in the Six-Party Talks on the nuclear weapons programmes of the DPRK.
In the fourth round of talks in September between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US a landmark agreement appeared to have been reached. “All six parties emphasised that to realise the inspectable non-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is the target of the Six-Party Talks,” a joint statement said. “The DPRK promised to drop all nuclear weapons and current nuclear programmes and to get back to the non-proliferation treaty as soon as possible and to accept inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency.”
At the time of going to press in November a fifth round of talks was expected to move a final agreement closer but detailed negotiations over implementation of the above agreement were not expected to be easy or to be concluded quickly. The DPRK, unsurprisingly, wants some payback, be it light-water reactors from the US or other economic incentives.
The core issue is that the DPRK’s publicly acknowledged plutonium programme, believed to provide enough radioactive material for about six bombs, is probably also the country’s key card in trying to rebuild the economy. Kim Jong Il needs to gain maximum advantage from giving up his nuclear threat, but even then, what does his economy have to offer?
For a financial journalist the DPRK represents a serious challenge. Understanding the economy and the banking sector of a country is never easy, but when no data is published by the government or the central bank it becomes significantly more difficult. I knew information was scarce but believed that the two very agreeable government minders, assigned to monitor my every move in my four-day visit, would be able to help me extract a simple list of banks operating in the country. No such luck. Although my visit was welcomed, the central bank (which acts as both the issuing bank and as a fully operational commercial bank in the traditional socialist model) failed to provide the list (or anything else), despite numerous requests.
Although the consensus after several interviews was that around 20 banks of various types exist, I can only vouch for the handful listed here. Clearly the Foreign Trade Bank (FTB) represents a pivotal bank in the financial system and Ko Chol Man, director of the FTB, was keen to explain the peculiarities of the DPRK banking system. “The domestic and foreign exchange settlement systems are completely separate. The central bank deals with the domestic market and money issuance and it also has a commercial banking role; the FTB has complete control over foreign exchange matters and trade and also holds the country’s foreign exchange reserves.”
Unlike other banking systems, the FTB in the DPRK acts as a clearing house for the foreign exchange activities of the banks in the country. It does not report to the central bank but, like all banks, reports to the State Fiscal and Financial Committee (SFFC), the overall banking regulator.
Mr Ko was pleased to note that the FTB had around 500 correspondent banks worldwide and, along with its 600 staff (including 11 branches) in North Korea, had six representative offices outside the country (including offices in Austria, Russia and China) and planned to establish a UK representative office in London. However, when asked for details of FTB’s banking activities he replied bluntly that no banking institution had published its figures in terms of activities or balance sheet. “We cannot give figures about the size of our assets because it is a regulation of the state. If the situation becomes better we can make them public but up to now it is impossible.”
Despite the absence of official economic and banking data, various estimates help make the picture a little less murky. A recent Standard Chartered Bank report places North Korea’s nominal GDP at the end of 2004 at $22bn or $957 in GDP per capita terms for the country’s 23 million population; by comparison, South Korea’s nominal GDP is put at $680bn or $14,167 per capita for its 48 million population. While the unification of the two Koreas is seen as an important political objective, especially in Pyongyang, the startling economic gap between the two states could mean that the North becomes a huge burden on the South, and Seoul well recognises the economic problems that emerged from the reunification of Germany in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Jong Msong Pil, of the Institute of Economy at the Academy of Social Science, explained how the economy had declined dramatically from a GDP per capita of $2500 in the mid-1980s to $480 per capita in 2000.
“The big drop was caused by the disappearance of the socialist market worldwide in the early 1990s; the collapse of our socialist barter trade system led to the failure of many enterprises and a decline in living standards,” he said.
Dr Jong noted that, following the hard times of the mid-1990s, the first target of the national economy has been self-reliance. He added that no economic data had been published since 2000. He believed, however, that 10% economic growth occurred in 2004 and, responding to reports from the World Food Programme (WFP) that a third of the population were malnourished, he said the food situation was improving. “In our country, all people have a job so for this reason no one has died of starvation or hunger. Our country is a socialist planned economy so the government takes care of people’s living.”
Acknowledging shortages in the past, Dr Jong said that in October the government had normalised the public food distribution system, which indicated the government was now supplying sufficient food.
Is the DPRK’s food crisis over? Driving around Pyongyang’s spacious avenues (with two minders) there was no visual evidence of malnutrition – but the capital is likely to be much better served than elsewhere. A supermarket was shown but the goods were only available for foreign currency, hardly food for the masses. Cha Yong Sik, deputy director general at the Ministry of Foreign Trade, said the government had not imported food on a commercial basis in 2005, unlike previous years, but neighbouring countries are still providing significant food aid. Richard Ragan, country director of the WFP, said food production in 2005 was up 10%, with cereals up 6.6%. But while the food situation may have improved, the DPRK is said to be still dependent on food aid.
So what are the DPRK’s prospects? Much depends on the outcome of the nuclear negotiations but estimates from the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA) say the DPRK’s trade volume in 2005 is expected to pass $3bn for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union with the figure likely to reach $4bn if inter-Korean trade is included. Trade with China, the DPRK’s largest trading partner, grew by more than 40% in the first half of 2005, indicating Pyongyang’s growing dependency on Beijing.
Upbeat on trade prospects, Mr Cha explained that the recently opened Tae-an Friendship Glass Factory, built with a $32m donation from the Chinese government, would export 40% of its 300-ton capacity, mainly to Siberia. Also Pyongyang’s first autumn international trade exhibition in October included companies from six European countries, the focus being on the country’s mineral potential rather than its manufacturing abilities, which are a long way off.
As for banks, the group of up to 15 joint venture banks are helping to finance the country’s 150 or so international companies. But do not expect miracles. The latest, Koryo Global Credit Bank, set up in June, is a joint venture between the UK-based Global Group, headed by Hong Kong businessman Johnny Hon, with 70%, and the state-owned Koryo Bank with 30%. Established with a paid-up capital of e10m, KGC Bank is ambitious in its plans to engage the DPRK in trade and commercial relations with the rest of the world, especially Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
KGCB’s first correspondent banking relationship in Europe is with Germany’s Helababank. The bank, the first product of cooperation in the finance field between the DPRK and the UK, has a staff of five and is also interested in investing in property. It was also able to produce, at the instigation of US authorities, a comprehensive anti-money laundering file.
Another local venture is North East Asia Bank (NEAB), which was set up by ING Group in 1995 but is now wholly owned by the Korean BOHOM Group. Amazingly, Kim Hyon Il, NEAB’s president, produced a balance sheet showing total assets of e79m at the end of 2004 and a paid-up capital of e25m. He also showed me the bank’s newest product, a chip-based cash/debit card, the first in the DPRK. The card demonstrates perhaps that the country is slowly joining the real world – but with only 100 issued and only 13 outlets available, the service has a long way to go.
At Daedong Credit Bank, chief executive Nigel Cowie explained how international politics can have a dramatic impact on banking even in the isolated DPRK. In September, just before the conclusion of the fourth round of the Six-Party Talks, the US Treasury accused Banco Delta Asia (BDA), a Macao-based bank, of aiding the DPRK in a series of ‘money laundering’ cases. The Wall Street Journal had said the Macao crackdown was Washington’s method of cutting off Pyongyang’s financial sources for its nuclear weapons programme.
Mr Cowie, a former HSBC banker, explained that all DPRK banks had accounts with BDA for the purposes of remitting funds and, as a result, the accounts were suspended pending an inquiry in mid-November. While Stanley Au, chairman of BDA’s parent, denied the US allegations and BDA’s involvement in any illegal business relations with DPRK banks, the damage is done. “It affects our customers because it affects people’s ability to remit money to and from the country. I imagine that this will cause people doing legitimate business to give up,” says Mr Cowie.
The nuclear negotiations remain critical to the country’s future and the Chinese, in particular, want them to succeed. But that is just a start. There is evidence that the DPRK is opening up and changing with reports that there are 300 open markets operating across the country, 30 in Pyongyang. But whether the DPRK follows the China model of 25 years ago and can restructure its ‘powerful socialist nation’ doctrine remains doubtful under the current leadership.