Archive for the ‘Bicycles’ Category

Koryo Tours completes first bike tour of DPRK

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Only weeks after helping launch the DPRK’s first Ultimate Frisbee tournament (see here and here), Koryo Tours launched the first bicycle tour of the DPRK. According to the Telegraph:

Beijing-based Koryo Group took 24 tourists from 10 nations on a 10-day tour of the most isolated nation on Earth.

The cyclists pedalled as far as 30 miles a day, often along dirt tracks in some of the most remote parts of the country, but also journeyed along the 10-lane Youth Hero Highway from Pyongyang to Nampo, on the west coast.

The itinerary is here. The Telegraph has a video of the tour here, and Koryo Tours has posted additional pictures here.

KCNA even gave an “interesting” shout out to the bike tour:

DPRK Directs Effort to Developing Tourism

Pyongyang, September 27 (KCNA) — The DPRK is directing much effort to developing tourism, with an eye to promoting the understanding, harmony, friendship and cooperation among nations and people of the world.

The country joined the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in September Juche 76 (1987) and the Pacific-Asia Tourism Association (PATA) in April 1996.

On September 27, World Tourism Day, Hong In Chol, a department director of the State General Bureau of Tourism, told KCNA:

The number of travel companies and people interested in the DPRK tourism is steadily increasing in Asian and European countries.

In particular, many tourists have visited the DPRK in the period of the grand gymnastic and artistic performance “Arirang” through international air routes and chartered flights from Shanghai, Xi An and Haerbin of China and Kuala Lumpur of Malaysia.

We have travel offices in China, Malaysia and Germany and plan to open such offices in other countries.

The bicycle tourism which took place in the DPRK some time ago under the sponsorship of the “Koryo Tours”, a British tourist agency, was very interesting.

The country’s tourist destinations have taken on a new look under the deep care of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the government, while the project for modernizing the infrastructure of tourism is progressing apace.

We will diversify the tourist program with cultural, sports, bicycle, golf and treatment tourism and improve all services.

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New DPRK status symbols

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

According to the Daily NK, motorcycles, computers, and “big dogs” have replaced the rice cooker and wristwatch as the cutting edge status symbols among North Koreans.

According to the article:

In today’s North Korea, where wealth inequality is growing more and more extreme, what is a symbol of upper class income status? Just a few years ago, the answer was a branded South Korean rice cooker, the ‘Cuckoo’. So much so, indeed, that the brand name has totally usurped the dictionary description, ‘pressurized electric rice cooker’, altogether.

However, according to a new interview with a cadre from an enterprise in Chongjin published in the new, June edition of NK Vision, the most potent recent symbols of a wealthy family are motorcycles, notebook computers and military dogs!

“Nowadays in Chongjin, transport agents are being stationed here and there because of motorcycle accidents. There are usually around three motorcycle accidents per day, and people are losing their lives,” the cadre explained.

The majority of the motorcycles ridden in North Korea are Chinese brands such as Jangbaeksan costing around 2,000-3,000 Yuan (with 1 Yuan worth 400 North Korean won). Meanwhile, even second-hand versions of Japanese brands including Yamaha and Honda cost considerably more than 5,000 Yuan.

The cadre continued, “The bicycle is still the basic means of transport, as it has been until now. But the bicycle is now just a really ordinary means of transport; it is no longer a symbol of wealth.”

A notebook computer is another symbol of economic good health. Among other reasons, this is because in random inspections by the North Korean authorities they check computers, and since notebook computers can be hidden easily, they are enjoying great popularity.

The source explained, “On average, computer checks crop up once every two or three months, and since this happens without warning, we cannot get rid of things like foreign movies or Korean songs. Seeing these checks getting more serious, nowadays notebook computers are the most popular thing.”

Big dogs are, similarly, growing in popularity, even though one dog can cost as much as 100,000 North Korean won, or more than 50kg of rice. According to the cadre, there is sound logic to this, too.

“Affluent households need dogs to deter thieves, and a military dog can be raised for around seven years then it leaves meat to the house,” he explained.

Yesterday, Martyn Williams informed us about the DPRK’s juche laptop!

Read thee full story here:
Motorcycles and Notebook Computers
Daily NK
Kim So-yeol
2011-5-26

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Friday Fun: DPRK Bike Tour

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Koryo Tours plans to launch the first ever bicycle tour of the the DPRK in September 2011.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time:

North Korea may not be at the top of most vacation destination planning lists, but it’s relatively easy to visit and safe. A number of tour companies run trips through much of the year, including for the Mass Games during late summer. There are no limitations on US citizens joining tours inside the country.

One of the tour operators, Koryo Tours, has lined up something a little different for 2011: a cycling trip through the country in September.

According to Koryo, this will be the first ever cycling tour around the communist nation. Participants on the trip will be in the saddle for around 4-8 hours a day over the course of a week, pedaling to Nampo on the west coast, through the ancient capital of Kaesong and with an option to head up into the mountains around Mt. Paekdu.

The company is planning to bring in mountain bikes from Beijing for the trip and will carry spare parts in a support vehicle, where the saddle-sore can take a break. All the cycling will be on tarmac roads.

As with all trips to North Korea, the group will be chaperoned by local guides. Hannah Barraclough at Koryo says the guides have been in training for the trip and have been cutting back on smoking in preparation. While there will be limitations on where photographs can be taken, regular stops for picture-taking are planned.

Ms. Barraclough says Koryo is planning to take around 20 people on the trip and initial interest has been good.

At the end of the trip, the company plans to donate the bikes to the local people.

The Koryo Tours web page is here.

Read the full story here:
Tour De Corée du Nord
Wall Street Journal Korea Real Time
Alastair Gale
12/3/2010

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Bicycle business growing in North Korea

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)
NK Brief No. 08-11-3-1
11/3/2008

The Daily NK has reported that the use of bicycles for business and transportation around the city of Pyongyang is becoming more and more commonplace, with 7 out of 10 households owning a bike, despite the fact that the cost of a bicycle in the capital city has doubled in the last twelve months alone.

According to North Korean defectors, until the early part of the 21st century, bicycles were the most sought-after purchases, with only 30~40 percent of families able to buy them.

According to a source in Pyongyang, “If you go to a [market] these days, you’d see that people who sell or purchase goods mostly use bicycles,” adding, “With the exception of those houses with extremely difficult situations, most households have a bike.”

The source explained that the growing use of bicycles is not due to improvements in the lives of the people, but rather, due to a shift in mentality. In the past, someone wishing to purchase a bike would first have to save up money for it, while today they think they can borrow the money, even at high interest rates, and then repay the loan through business profits.

The Daily NK explains, “With the ubiquity of [market] trading and the increase in business competition, bicycles have become must-have items.”

In Sinuiju, as well, bicycles have become a necessity for traders. A source there reported, “In farmlands that are distant from the [market], bicycles are an important means of linking to city markets. The merchants can triple or quadruple their profit, compared with those that don’t own bicycles.”

Most traders with bicycles take orders from those living in farming villages, fill the orders in city markets, then barter the items in the villages for vegetables and grains which they then turn around and sell in markets for a profit. Competition is stiff as traders follow price differences between the markets in order to squeeze out even a 100 won profit.

Read two recent stories on North Korea’s bicycle culture here:
70% of Households Use Bikes
Daily NK
Jung Kwon Ho
10/30/2008

People’s Safety Agency Targeting Women Cyclists
Daily NK
Jung Kwon Ho
11/6/2008

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An In-depth Look at North Korea’s Postal Service

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

Daily NK
Moon Sung Hwee
4/8/2008

April 8th is Postal Service Day in North Korea. Each province has a branch office of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and Communication Maintenance Bureau. The postal system manages the distribution of letters, telegrams, telephone calls, TV broadcasts, newspapers and magazines. Additionally, they mint stamps and also operate an insurance agency in name only.

In the late 1990s, the national postal system was completely ruined

In North Korea, postal service offices are set up in each “ri”—a small village unit–, of each county to deliver letters, parcel posts and telegrams. Following the March of Tribulation in the late 1990s, the delivery system was completely destroyed and its formal structure was left in tatters. Even in the 1980s when the North Korean economy and people’s lives were relatively stable, it took around 15 days to two months on average to deliver a letter from Pyongyang to a rural village.

In the case of a telegram, it took generally 3 or 4 days to reach a postal office in a rural area. In the late 1980s, to guarantee efficiency within the telegram delivery system, the authorities supplied the offices with second-hand bicycles from Japan.

After the March of Tribulation, letters disappeared due to train delays and frequent blackouts, and the telegram service was virtually incapacitated due to the lack of electricity.

Telephones were restricted to control the outflow of national secrets

North Korea uses a separate electricity supply for its telephone system. Even if there is a power blackout in a village, villagers can still use the telephone network. In 1993, fiber-optic cables were installed and the use of mail and telegram services began to decline. North Korean people call fiber optic cable a “light telephone.”

North Korea built an automatic telecommunicates system by developing multi-communication technology with imports of machinery and by inviting engineers from China in 1998.

In 2003, authorities allowed cadres to use telephones in their houses and in 2005, they also allowed people to use the telephone at home as long as they paid 2,000 North Korean won (approx. USD0.6) a month (a monthly salary is 1,500 won per laborer).

In August, 2007, the government tightened regulations regarding the telephone system. People could make calls only within their province. Authorities said the reason was to prevent the outflow of national secrets.

The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications controls TV and other broadcasting. There is no cable TV in North Korea. Authorities set up an ultra-short wave relay station in each county to relay television broadcasts.

North Korea signed a contract with Thailand for satellite broadcasting and installed U.S.-made transmission and relay facilities in 2000.

People can now listen to “Chosun Central Broadcasting,” but in rural areas, it is difficult to recieve signals because the broadcasting facilities and cables have already begun to deteriorate.

People sarcastically say a “newspaper is not about news but about “olds.” The authorities pay special attention to the successful delivery of the Workers Party Rodong Shinmun bulletin. To deliver Rodong Shinmun from Pyongyang to each province or even to each city and county by train, it normally takes 4-5 days. Sometimes, it takes more than a week.

People also say they use an “oral-paper” to get information because rumors are faster than the Rodong Shinmun.

Postal service workers were dragged to prison camps

In 1992, the Minister and all related officials of Posts and Telecommunications were fired, and the Minister, the Vice Minister and their families were sent to political prison camps for having wasted national finances for the import of factory machinery to produce fiber-optic cables from the U.K.

They submitted a proposal to Kim Jong Il to buy factory machines in order to earn foreign currency through the production and export of fiber optic cables. However, in the end they eventually bought worn-out machines from the U.K. and failed to earn profits. In addition, they embezzled some of the funds.

In 2001, in Lee Myung Soo Workers-District of Samjiyeon, Yangkang Province, two office workers and a manager of a relay station broadcasted Chinese TV programs that they were watching to residents by mistake, so they were sent to a political prison camp and their families were expelled to a collective farm.

Agents of the National Security Agency are stationed at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications in order to scrutinize mail, parcels, to tap telephone wires and to supervise residents.

The Ministry regularly dispatches professional engineers to the 27th Bureau, to the airwaves-monitoring station, and to the 12th Bureau, which was newly established to censor mobile phones.

On Postal Service Day, Chosun Central Agency often delivers praise for the development of North Korea’s postal system and facilities under the General’s direction.

However, most ordinary citizens will not be able to watch or read about it in time, for the lack of paper, electricity, infrastructure, and delivery systems.

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Pyongyang to start using buses with air conditioning

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Yonhap
2/12/2008

North Korea will begin using more than a hundred new buses with air conditioning for the convenience of a growing number of foreigners visiting Pyongyang, a U.S. government-funded radio station reported Tuesday.

Pyongyang’s municipal people’s committee recently requested a Chinese bus manufacturer to install air conditioning in 110 new buses to be used in the capital city, Radio Free Asia said.

The North already paid the cost in cash and 52 of the buses were already sent to Pyongyang, it said.

The communist state depends heavily on foreign aid to overcome its chronic energy shortage.

“North Korea is introducing buses with air conditioning to make Pyongyang look more advanced and urban in the eyes of foreign tourists whose number is on the rise,” the radio report said, quoting an unidentified source in China. “North Korean people have realized by watching TV dramas and other programs from South Korea that their living standards are not good enough.”

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A Woman’s Life

Sunday, December 2nd, 2007

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov
12/2/2007

About a century ago, in the early 1900s, no major political movement could rival the Marxists in their commitment to gender equality. It was the time when women could not vote anywhere (well, anywhere apart from New Zealand and Australia), when their property rights were strictly limited, married unemployment was seen as the most natural state for “weaker vessels”, and most professions were not for women. In those days, the early Communists vocally demanded equal political and economic rights, equal pay, and also insisted that women should be given access to all professions, including the most manly ones.

When the Communists took power, for a brief while they tried to keep their promise. In the Communist Russia of the 1920s there were highly publicized cases of female air force pilots, military officers, and ambassadors. However, this drive did not last: Communism in power proved to be very patriarchal, and by the 1940s the earlier demands for gender equality were quietly scaled down in all Communist states.

Of all these states, North Korea probably proved to be most patriarchal, especially after its turn to nationalism in the late 1950s. Nationalism often goes hand in hand with anti-feminist sentiments, and North Korea was no exception. Soon North Korean women learned that they should know their proper place (of “wise mothers and kind wives”, of course) and be careful about their behavior, least it threaten public decency and morality.

This “proper” behavior was enforced through a number of restrictions: certain types of activity were denied women. North Korea has its own version of the “glass ceiling”, not allowing women to rise above a certain level. However, there are also bans on some mundane daily activities which for some reason are proclaimed to be “unbecoming of women”.

To start with, women are not allowed to smoke. In North Korea, female smoking is an absolute taboo, at least for young and middle-aged women. Female smokers in the South are disapproved of, but in the North the approach to the transgression is much tougher. As one defector put it: “A North Korean woman must be crazy to take up smoking”. There have been reports about women being sent into exile for their persistence with the smoking habit. I am slightly skeptical about these reports, but it is clear that in smoking a woman risks some serious “criticism” during an ideological study session, and this is not a good turn of events in North Korean society. This is in stark contrast with males’ behavior, since most North Korean males are chain smokers.

However, older women are exempted from this ban, and there are many North Korean women who begin smoking when they turn 50 or soon afterwards.

Pyongyang, the “capital of revolution” is somewhat notorious for many bans of seemingly normal things which are declared improper and unbecoming. Some of these bans are gender specific. For example, in Pyongyang and other major cities, for a long time women were not allowed to wear trousers. It was OK to work in trousers, but once the shift was over, decent North Korean women were supposed to dress in a “womanly manner” – that is, to change into a skirt. Those who appeared on the street dressed in trousers could be sent home by a police patrol. Once again, the ban did not apply to older women, and in the mid-90s trousers were partially pardoned.

In general, “proper female modesty” has always been extolled. In 1982 Kim Il-sung, while addressing the North Korean rubber-stamping parliament issued a warning: “It does not conform with the socialist lifestyle if women wear dresses without sleeves or a dress that shows their breasts!” North Koreans tried to ensure that the skirts were of an appropriate length to “conform to the socialist lifestyle”. Even nowadays, in the days of relative openness, skirts should safely cover the knees of the wearers.

Driving is not regarded as an activity suitable for a woman, and women are never issued a driving license. Of course, the number of private cars is very small, and their owners are naturally overwhelmingly male. It is remarkable that in the past, back in the 1970s and 1980s, even foreign women could encounter difficulties if they applied for a driving permit in Pyongyang. Obviously, North Korean officials could not comprehend how the female brain would be able to master such a technology.

However, the most bizarre of all these bans is one which deals with cycling. Bicycles were prohibited in Pyongyang for decades, and the ban was lifted only around 1992. However, this relaxation was not for everybody. In 1996, authorities decided that the bicycle was not suitable for women. The official press explained that “beautiful national customs” do not permit such debauchery. Allegedly, this judgment was the decree of Kim Jong-il himself.

At first, police worked hard to enforce the ban, and some female riders had their bikes confiscated, but then things cooled down and some women began to defy the prohibition.

However, it is increasingly clear that these and other bans are enforced by police with ever diminishing zeal. The North Korean dictatorship is running out of steam, not least because its own servants do not believe the official slogans anymore.

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North Korea authorities “Stop Operating Chinese Motorcycles for Commercial Use”

Monday, November 12th, 2007

Daily NK
Kwon Jeong Hyun
11/12/2007

North Korean authorities recently started regulating motorcycle operation in order to control private market.

Motorcycle is most preferred means of transportation especially for North Korean salespersons. And in North Korea, everybody must get a license from the government to operate cars, motorcycles or even bicycles.

North Korean authorities now give license to only Made in DPRK “Bugang Motorcycle,” which is considerably more expensive than those imported from China.

Choi, a 33 years old resident of Sinuiju visiting his relative in Dandong, China, said on last Thursday “getting operator’s license for Made in China motorcycles has become ridiculously difficult.” According to Choi, only domestic motorcycle owners receive license and popular dissatisfaction increased.

It seems that North Korean authorities want to stop growing of private market by making it impossible to operate motorcycle, a vital part of transportation of goods.

Choi added “even before, someone had to bribe police officer to get a license, but now, bribery doesn’t work for Chinese-built motorcycles at all.”

Why people prefer Made in China? “Korean motorcycles manufactured in Pyongyang cost 1,500 US dollars and often break down. However, Chinese ones cost only 600 dollars while perform far better.”

Choi complained that “some people who operated Chinese motorcycle without license got their bikes confiscated.”

The loots were sent to the Army troops on DMZ.

Chinese motorcycle has become prevalent since 2002 when North Korean residents whose relatives lived in China received it as gift and operated for commercial purpose.

According to Choi, “Motorcycle can carry a certain amount of goods to inlands and it is so convenient. Even if motorcycle is expensive, everybody wants to own one. People buy seafood on the coast and bring them to the cities or sell small commodities.”

For alluvial gold, price differs among regions, so transporting it fast with motorcycle is lucrative business.

Lee, defected Pyongyang last year, said “In the past, a few rich people bought used Japanese motorcycles like Honda or Yamaha, but now many people operate Chinese ones for commercial purpose.”

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Pyongyang Makes an Appearance

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov
6/17/2007

Keeping up appearances: this is how the official North Korean policy in regard to the city of Pyongyang, the cradle of revolution, can be best summed up. Being a Pyongyang dweller is a great privilege in itself. Until things began to fall apart in the mid-1990s, this meant that your food rations would consist largely of rice (not barley and corn, as in the countryside) and that your children would be entitled to a small glass of milk in school. But you also had to follow the rules, and participate in the grandiose symbolic performance that Pyongyang actually was _ and to an extent still is.

Many laws which dealt with the daily life of Pyongyang’s residents essentially served the purposes of presentation. Take, for example, the case of Pyongyang bikes. East Asia has a well-deserved reputation as a cyclists’ paradise. Nonetheless, North Korea used to be different. Until the early 1990s bicycles were outlawed in Pyongyang. Obviously, the North Korean authorities saw bicycles as decisively low-tech _ and hence inappropriate for the “capital of revolution.’’

Foreigners were not exempt from this charade. When in the mid-1970s a visiting Norwegian diplomat brought his bike to Pyongyang, he stirred up a diplomatic controversy. After painful negotiations he was granted permission to ride his bike… on weekends only.

Another example is a strict dress code imposed on the female dwellers of Pyongyang and some other cities. Women are not supposed to wear trousers outside their work. Actually, police turn a blind eye to such inappropriately dressed women in winter. Older halmoni also can walk in trousers with impunity _ at least if they do not stray outside their neighborhood. But for other women in summer time, skirts are obligatory, and until the late 1990s an attempt to walk the street in trousers would result in a fine and a probable report to police.

There are other restrictions as well: a certain tradition or institution may not be outlawed but should not be mentioned in the press. A phenomenon could exist in the real world, but it is not permitted to enter the world carefully constructed by Pyongyang propaganda.

My favorite example is the pram. North Korean women carry their children like women in East Asia have done for centuries: on their backs. This is probably a very good way: at least, Russian Koreans, arguably the most de-Koreanized of all overseas Korean communities, still sometimes follow this custom after some 150 years of their life in Russia. Perhaps, it makes sense: a baby feels so comfortable on a mother’s back!

But the North Korean authorities decided that this age-old habit of carrying children on the back should not be too widely advertised. Hence, you cannot find pictures of women carrying kids on their back. Instead, on the glossy pages of the North Korean propaganda monthlies, readers frequently encounter pictures of impossibly happy mothers who are moving their children about in prams. In real life one has to spend several weeks in Pyongyang before chancing on a pram-pushing lady. The politically incorrect tradition of carrying children on the back should not be mentioned in official publications or depicted in visual arts (unless they employed as a reference to the bad old days before the coming of the Kim dynasty).

Nowadays, the rules have been somewhat relaxed, but back in the 1970s or 1980s a foreigner took some risk by taking a picture of a mother with a baby on her back. There were chances that, if spotted, the film would be removed from the camera and exposed to the light.

The same fate could easily befall somebody who dared take pictures of Korean women moving heavy loads on their heads. Such scenes are increasingly rare in Seoul these days, but in Pyongyang this is still a commonplace sight. Nonetheless, in the ideal world of the official propaganda, Korean women do not carry large weight in such an archaic way, and no media is allowed to break the censorship of such subversive information.

Actually, I think that there are good reasons why the North Korean officials are afraid of such scenes. They likely know little about Edward Said’s writings on “Orientalism’’: after all, Leninist regimes were always very suspicious about non-Leninist brands of leftist ideology, so people like Gramsci, Althusser, or Said were never much loved in Moscow, Beijing, or Pyongyang. But they obviously grasped some of Said’s “Orientalist’’ ideas instinctively. For most Western readers, pictures of women with children on their backs or of old ladies moving heavy loads on the top of their heads do hint at “exoticism’’ and also, by implication, “underdevelopment’’. And the North Korean state does not want to present itself as underdeveloped.

But all these efforts to impress the world appear quite strange when we remember how small the target audience actually was. North Koreans knew the truth anyway, and foreigners in Pyongyang were very few in number. In most cases their positions and experiences made them very skeptical of all these propaganda exercises. But the North Korean officials tried hard nonetheless.

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Filling North Korea’s bare shelves

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

Asia Times
1/10/2007
Ting-I Tsai

North Korea’s nuclear test has been a hot topic among analysts around the world. But inside the isolated Stalinist state, getting a hold of a pair of running shoes, a bicycle or a television set is still what most excites ordinary citizens.

And Chinese businesses continue to cash in on these material desires by selling goods manufactured at home or in North Korea at prices higher than their quality justifies, sparking much criticism.

When Pyongyang publicized its intention to initiate economic reforms in July 2002, most people had doubts about how far the policy would be taken. Four years later, the regime is still struggling to implement its reforms, but it has at least partly satisfied some of the daily demands of citizens by allowing more Chinese products to be manufactured in North Korea and more Chinese goods to be imported.

Shoes, bicycles, TV sets, beverages and clothes made in China or by Chinese companies in North Korea are helping to satisfy demand, but some disreputable Chinese companies are ruining their country’s reputation by dumping factory seconds and damaged goods on the market.

Over decades of isolation, North Koreans have been suffering not just from food shortages, but from a scarcity of basic consumer goods. In past years, Pyongyang has reportedly asked the South Korean government to donate thousands of tons of soap and clothes, as well as material for the production of 60 million pairs of shoes. In a visit to Pyongyang in November, products such as Colgate toothbrushes, toothpaste and a Japanese facial cleaner were carefully displayed in glass cases bearing price tags equivalent to US$2.60-$5.90, well beyond the financial reach of all but a few North Koreans.

After years of studying China’s experiences, Pyongyang is now gearing up to solicit foreign investment and advanced technologies to modernize its decades-old manufacturing base.

Supply and demand
“Because the supply can’t satisfy the demand, prices of most of the Chinese products simply soar in the North Korean market,” said Su Xiangzhong, chairman of a Tianjin company that founded a beverage-manufacturing joint venture, Lungjin, with a North Korean.

Trade between the two countries increased by 35.4% in 2004, followed by a 35.2% increase in 2005. By the end of October 2006, bilateral trade had reached $1.38 billion, a 4% increase over 2005.

Beijing-based Winner International Industries Ltd was one of the Chinese companies that foresaw North Korea’s consumption potential in 2000. By then, the company had co-founded a joint-venture running-shoe and clothing-manufacturing presence in North Korea. With advanced machinery from Taiwan, its shoe-manufacturing division is now capable of producing 8 million pairs of running shoes, according to an official from the company, who declined to identify himself. The clothing-manufacturing division, he said, has been a supplier to South Korean and Japanese companies. However, he added that orders from the two countries had recently decreased for unknown reasons.

Leather shoes for soldiers are of high quality, but they are not available to the average person. In Pyongyang shops catering exclusively to foreigners, a pair of leather shoes could cost as much as $326. The North Korean government is still soliciting foreign investment and purchasing shoemaking equipment via Chinese companies.

To get around in a country with underdeveloped public transportation, getting a pair of shoes is not enough. Taking advantage of that situation, Tianjin’s Digital Co started making bicycles in Pyongyang in October 2005, after the North Koreans agreed to let the Chinese take a 51% controlling share in the joint venture, virtually a monopoly, for 20 years.

It is estimated that the nation’s demand for bicycles is about 7 million, according to the Chinese media. The company now manufactures some 40 models and 60,000 bicycles annually, with the most popular model costing $26. In coming years, it plans to produce 300,000 bicycles annually and construct another three bicycle plants.

Aside from daily necessities, there are few entertainment options for North Koreans, which means there is a high demand for TV sets. Nanjing Panda, a TV maker, appeared to be the only Chinese company to foresee the emergence of the North Korean market when it invested $1.3 million there in 2002. After four years of operation, its 17-inch black-and-white and 21-inch color TV sets are reportedly the hottest items available in Pyongyang. With Panda products beginning to dominate the local market, it is becoming increasingly difficult for others to import TV sets into North Korea, according to Chinese business people.

The Panda joint venture is now digging up another potential gold mine by manufacturing personal computers (PCs) in North Korea.

In 2003, Chinese non-financial investments in North Korea amounted to just $1.12 million. That total, however, soared to $14.13 million in 2004, and reportedly reached $53.69 million in 2005. According to the Chinese media, there are now about 200 Chinese investment projects operating in North Korea. A Pyongyang-based foreign businessman described the Chinese investors as “by far the largest group by country doing business there, in all kinds of fields – plus they are from one of the few countries with the protection and representation of a big embassy”.

In March 2005, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao signed an investment-protection agreement with his North Korean counterpart, and the two nations inked five bilateral economic-cooperation agreements between 2002 and 2005.

During North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s visit to China last January, Wen introduced new economic-cooperation guidelines.

Despite these positive moves, controversy over the role of Chinese businesses has emerged. A Pyongyang-based Western businessman suggested that quite a few disreputable companies “go there with the intention of getting rid of old or damaged goods they can’t sell in China, and rip off North Koreans, who have no way to get their money back”.

“Also, a lot of fake goods come from China,” he added.

Still, more and more Chinese business people are rushing to Pyongyang. Su Xiangzhong, chairman of a Tianjin-based company, noted that his firm is creating a new beverage brand, like China’s Wahaha, in Pyongyang. North Koreans are also very interested in cooperating with Chinese enterprises in manufacturing and mining.

Chinese-made clothes for women and children, low-end and generic-brand household products and sundries, color TVs and PCs are popular products in North Korea.

Li Jingke, a Dandong-based Chinese businessman who runs the China-DPR Korea Small Investor Association, suggested that natural-resource exploitation and manufacturing are the best industries for foreigners to invest in, adding that more investment-friendly policies would likely be introduced in April. By then, he said, Chinese business people might need to become more concerned about unprofessional conduct.

“When North Korea introduces more liberalized policies, competent companies from everywhere will enter the market, which would likely eliminate the existence of those Chinese businessmen who don’t have modern commercial ideas in mind,” Li said.

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