Archive for December, 2005

Price information

Saturday, December 31st, 2005

Here is more commodity price information courtesy of Open Radio for North Korea:

Agricultural and houselhold commodities:
1) Rice
-Shin Eui Joo: The price rose from 850 won/kg (18th) to 900won/kg (31st)/ whole sale price: 620won/kg
-Bak Chun Gun: October: 1000won/kg, November 800won/kg (trading rice was banned in October with resumption of food distribution system, which caused the rising price.)
-Pyeongyang: Honammi 800won/kg Annammi 680won/kg

2) Corn
-Shin Eui Joo: 400won/kg (December)
-Bak Chun Gun: 350won/kg (November)

3) Pork
-Shin Eui Joo: 3,300won/kg (December)
-Bak Chun Gun: 3,500won/kg (November)

4) Beef: 7,000won/kg (Beef is seldom sold at markets, but was temporarily out in the black market for new year’s holiday season.)

5) Cooking Oil
-Shin Eui Joo: 2,300 won/kg (November)/Yellow Oil 
-Bak Chun Gun: 2,500won/kg (November)/Yellow Oil

6) Seasoning
-Same in the region of Shin Eui Joo, Sah Ree Won, Bak Chun Gun: 2000won/bag(200g)

7) Underwear
-Bak Chun Gun: Brassiere: 4,000~6,000won, Children’s underwear: 5,000~6,000won
-Shin Eui Joo : Underclothes: 10,000~15,000won/piece, 20,000~30,000won/set

8) Socks
-Bak Chun Gun: 500~2,000won/pair (socks for winter)

9) Shoes
– Bak Chun Gun: high quality: 15,000won, poor quality: 3,000~4,000won/ Handmade: 2,500won 

10) T.V
-Shin Eui Joo: the same as November

11) Price of house and rent
-Shin Eui Joo: One storied house (1 Room, 1 Kitchen): $600, Apartment (2 Rooms, 1 Kitchen): $1,500, Well-located apartment (3 Rooms, 1 Kitchen): $10,000~15,000(able to bargain), 100 Sq.m- apartment: $12,500 (90,000~100,000 Chinese Yuan)
-Sa Ree Won: 100 Sq.m apartment $8,750 (70,000 Chinese Yuan)
-Bak Chun Gun: One storied house (2 Rooms, 1 Kitchen): around $100, Three storied apartment: around $150~200

1.  A middleman receives 10% of the purchase as compensation. If one moves to a purchased house, one needs to receive a certificate which records that you are allowed to live in the house from a police officer in charge of registration in the neighborhood, usually the payment is one mal(10du/15kg) of rice.
2.  Expense for making Kimchi(Bak Chun Gun): Chinese cabbage 200won/head, Red pepper powder 2500won/kg, garlic 3,000won/100heads, ginger 300won/kg, salt 350won/kg, sugar 1,000won/kg, salted anchovies 1,500won/kg, scallion is raised at home.  Approximately 40,000~45,000won is expended for making 150 heads of Kimchi (usually consumed with rice, and is made with pepper, scallion and salted anchovies), for family of four.

Local Fees and Markets:
1) Electricity- Bak Chun Gun: 10won/lightbulb, 70won for black and white TV (per quarter)

2) Water- Bak Chun Gun: flat rate of 200won per house (per quarter)

3) Tax on land – Bak Chun Gun: 200won/2.5 Sq.m (per month)

4) Payment for spot at markets (Bak Chun Gun)

5) Exchange rate for Renminbi and US dollar
Shin Eui Joo: 2,900won/$ (November 1: 2,715)/ Rinminbi 360won/yuan (November 1:320)/ 3600won/Euro

1.  No payment at markets, but general tax is imposed. 20won/day for agricultural products, and tax for industrial products vary according to the goods.
2.  Spots in Markets are rarely traded. For people starting their business at the market, relationship with the manager is important. When business with the manager was successful, managers make a spot for them by making others’ spots smaller.

Health Care and clothing:
1) Medicine for cold and antibiotics (Bak Chun Gun)
-Medicine for cold: Chung Yeong Poong 10won/pill (Adults consume 2 pills)/ Antibiotics: Penicillin 100won per ampoule/ Distilled water: 30won
-Antibiotics: when one receives an injection of 1 ampoule of Penicillin mixed with distilled water, the doctor is paid 100won aside from the price of medicine.

2) Bribe paid for medical examination and basic treatment (Bak Chun Gun)
-5000won for releasing a medical certificate, 350won for 1 injection (ex, glucose 500g), 100won for Penicillin

3) Stationaries (Bak Chun Gun)
-Won Joo Pil( Ball Pen): 250won, Notebook (paper made of straw): 5won/20pieces, Hand-made bag in North Korea, 2,000~3,000won, Uniforms used to be purchased at a flat rate set by the government with a coupon, but uniform is seldom sold at a shop these days. People usually purchase fabrics of appropriate color and size, and hand made the uniforms. (official state rate for elementary school uniform used to be 1,500won)

Monthly tuition and expense (Bak Chun Gun) :
-No monthly tuition is officially required, but some parents give some money to the teachers privately and school requires the students to prepare various materials.
– Club activity: the students need to pay 5,000won every month. (If one participates in cell activity, he/she is exempted from external labor or social labor ).
– Monthly payment is 10 bundles of firewood/Iron 3kg/Vinyl 1kg/Rubber 1kg
– -Students who fail to bring the materials are returned home without being allowed into the class.

-Shin Eui Joo: same as November
-Bak Chun Gun: Electricity was provided throughtout all day despite frequent blackouts occurred in the summer. / Since the beginning of the winter, electricity was provided only between 10:30pm~ 4am due to poor supply. (Mostly, candles are used at night. Candles are 40won each).
–  Pyeongyang: electricity is provided for 24 hours, but blackouts occur often. Sometimes, 3~4 hours of blackout occur. 

Water Supply:
-In case of Bak Chun Gun downtown, water pipes freeze in the winter. People dig wells for water.
-In case of Pyongyang, peripheral area is provided with water only once or twice a week. (The time when water is supplied is not announced beforehand. People have to watch the faucet on all the time).

Railway system and transportation fee:
-The fare for train from Bak Chun~ Won San with a transfer at Gaema Highland (Where Pyong Buk Sun and Gang Won Sun meets) is 35won, but most of the officials at the station hide the tickets and sell them for 1,000won.
-In order to buy train tickets, one needs to make a reservation a day ahead and stand in line to buy the ticket on the day. However, honored soldiers, soldiers on service and school teachers have priority, and it is hard for common people to buy tickets.
-What is interesting is that a lot of people take the train without paying the fare when moving from Bak Chun Gun to Ahn Joo Gun by Shin Eui Joo-Gae Sung train. It is because no body checks the tickets in this block.

Cars, buses and car fare between major cities:
-Pyongyang: same fare of 5won for subway, train without track
-Bus between Bak Chun ~ Shin Eui Joo runs once a day, and the fare is 2,500~2,800won. Additional 1,000won needs to be paid for one luggage.
-Shin Eui Joo~Nampo/ Roundtrip, once a day, 10,000won
-Shin Eui Joo~Won San/ Roundtrip, once a day/ 12,000won (10,000won possible after bargaining)
-Shin Eui Joo~Sa Ree Won/ Roundtrip, once a day/ 12,000won (10,000won possible after bargaining)
Footnote: No departure time is designated. The train leaves when the train is full.

-Shin Eui Joo: Same as before. Some of the private inns are as well organized as hotel. Chinese Koreans usually use them, and it costs 5,000won per night.
-Bak Chun Gun: State owned inns lacked heating system and was filled with lice, which is why they rarely exist now. Individuals run lodging facilities now (similar to lodging at a private residence)/ they come out to the station in order to invite guests, and it costs 100won per night.

Expense for obtaining travel document:
-Travel document: it costs 10,000won to travel from Bak Chun to Pyeongyang (ten box of cigarettes branded “Cat”)/ if using other ways, 6,000won~8,000won (Jagangdo 7,000won/Chungjin 8,000won/Pyeongsung 6,000won)/ 500won from Bakchun to Shin Eui Joo (Within a province)
-Travel document is not supposed to cost any money, but Municipal adminisrative committee, county administrative committee and officials in charge of the process publicly asks for money/ Only expense for travel documents to Pyongyang is flat rate of 10,000won, and expense for other provinces differ by person.
-Travel document to cross the river: Valid for one month, and cannot be extended/ costs around $100~200, which is not much more than passport or visa. (more money paid, the document is more quickly issued)/ Fee for travel document to cross the river is set for 20,000won by the government.
-When Chinese citizen visited North Korea with the document, extension is only available with a cost of $100 a day. (When one has good relationship with people of National Security Agency or any other relevant organizations, he/she can pay $50 a day) Because of the fee, they rarely extend the document.
-Passport and visa: DPRK passport is valid for 2 months and Chinese visa is valid for 90 days (In North Korea, expiration date on DPRK passport is more important than that on Chinese visa)/ Extension can be made twice, but extension is rarely requested by anyone (Specific reason for extension needs to be provided, which is a lot of work)/ Also, certificate of health is only valid for 4 months, which means that the passport cannot be extended twice/ fee for issuance of passport is set by the government for 40,000won (Some people say 150,000won). But actual expense is $100~500, and the expense varies depending on the region, person (interpersonal skills, ability, relationship with others) and the waiting time to get the passport (1 month~1year)/ Passport is issued in 1~2 months with a payment of $500 for Pyongyang, and 2~3months with a payment of $300 for other regions. / DPRK passport is valid for 2 months, but it is actually issued 1 month after the issue date.
-When visiting China to visit relatives, applicants for passport and travel document to cross the river are classified separately. In case of crossing Yalu River, if the applicant intends to stay in Dandong Province (Dandong, Bongsung, Donggang, Gwanjun) they need to apply for travel document, and if they intends to go farther than Dandong Province and for example, visit relatives in Shenyang and Fushun, they need to apply for passport.
-A case of procedure to obtain travel documents to cross the river and visa (with purpose of visiting the relatives)
-Application and procedure -> Mid March, Fill out the application (Hand $200 to officials at the office of foreign works: Confirmation of the relatives at the office of foreign works, military security office, and military police office, confirmation by a chair of women’s committee, Approval from Provincial Police Office and National Security Agency) -> Issuance of travel documents to cross the river in the beginning of November -> Two-day education in the beginning of November (First day: Exhibition on battle against espionage/ Second day: special education by the deputy of military security offic / Lastly, write out the oath) -> entered China on 23 November

Price of a business spot at the market (Bak Chun Gun)
-In case of the market at Bak Chung Eup, they don’t have the price of business spots.

Food Distribution System
-Bak Chun Gun: Distribution was carried out twice in the beginning and the end of October/ Distribution was halted in November/ The amount distributed was 15kg and did not meet the assigned amount of 57kg/ Official amount: 700g for workers, 300g for housewives, 500g for 15 year old child, 400g for 13 year old child/ rice/other crops ratio is 3:7
-Pyongyang: Food distribution was not halted except for the three months period of April~June 2005./ The amount distributed is 485g(official: 700g) for workers, 300g for housewives, 200g for students (official amount 300~500g)/ ratio of rice and other crops was 5:5. The ratio was sometimes 7:3 when things are better than the usual/ The price was 36won for Annammi, 54won for Honam rice (received from South Korea)/ Price at Yangjungso(Place where rice is gathered) was 20won less than market price/ Everyone is supposed to purchase rice from Yangjungso, but because of poor quality of rice, some well-off people buy rice at market.
-Shin Eui Joo and Sa Ree Won is similar to Bak Chun Gun.

Events, accidents, things to pay attention to

1) Penalty for listening to foreign broadcasting or watching illegal recordings
Case1> There was a public trial and punishment in July~August 2004 for 5 people for watching illegal recordings at a conference room of Gun Management Committee of Bak Chun Gun, located in downtown. / The penalty was expulsion of the family of the involved party to the mountains.
Case 2> A person who sold and showed VCD in Pyongyang in November 2005 was arrested. During investigation, the person committed suicide using a string on his bag while the investigator was absent. Reason for the suicide was not to harm the rest of his/her family/In Pyongyang as well, when one gets caught while watching illegal recordings, the penalty is usually an expulsion.

2) Wire telephone and charge for phone calls
– Installation of wire telephone: $200 at Sa Ree Won and Bak Chun Eup, $300 at Shin Eui Joo for obtaining a phone number as well/ customer needs to purchase the wire separately
-User of private wire telephone: There are relatively a lot of users of private wire telephone at Bak Chun Eup because there are a lot of Returnees from Japan and traders. Among 120 households, there are 11 households with telephone./ When somebody want to use wire telephone in a neighborhood, around 500won is paid.
-Common people use telegram for communication. 10won is charged for one page, and .5won is charged for each additional word.

3) Others
-Bak Chun Gun: There was a rumor that private cultivation would be allowed starting from this year, but instead of private cultivation, a group farming was adopted. Each group pay the assigned amount to the government, and the rest was left for the individuals to take care of. However, the groups needed to take care of fertilizer and pesticides which caused decline of the yield/ Phrase including “Communism” is gradually decreasing (example, “Communist Ethics” was replaced with “Socialist Ethics” in textbooks for elementary, middle and high school. “Rice is Communism” was replaced with “Rice is Socialism” as well/General atmosphere is that people do not believe what government and the party says.

-Pyongyang: Broadcasting criticized the resolution on situation of human rights in DPRK at the UN, but it is heard that the criticism has caused side effects/ Many of the people think that the resolution must have been adopted because there is a problem of human rights in DPRK/People in Pyongyang are known to be unhappy with Kim’s regime but have no way to change it. So they try to be patient and endure.


Tours to North Korea to Enjoy Boom

Friday, December 30th, 2005

Korea Times
Kim Rahn

It has been eight years since South Koreans started visiting Mt. Kumgang, a scenic attraction in North Korea on a cruise program organized by Hyundai Asan.

Hopes and doubts about the success of the trips continue, as the tour program is strongly influenced by international and local developments. And many ups and downs have occurred over the past eight years.

The number of visitors plummeted during difficult times such as when a South Korean woman visitor was detained in 1999, when former Hyundai chairman Chung Mong-hun committed suicide in 2003, and when the North cut the quota of daily visitors by 50 percent last year.

Numbers rose when the government subsidized costs for students, the disabled and dispersed families in 2002, and when an overland bus route was developed in 2003.

Despite obstacles, the number of South Korean visitors to the scenic mountain resort passed the million mark last June.

Moreover, the communist country plans to open more tourist attractions to South Korea. Kaesong, the capital of the ancient Koryo Kingdom, Mt. Paektu on the border of North Korea and China, and maybe even the North Korean capital Pyongyang are on a possible list of tourist attractions for South Korean travelers.


At the end of last August, 500 South Korean tourists visited Kaesong, the old capital of the Koryo Kingdom (918 A.D.-B.C.1392), for the first time since the end of Korean War in 1953 on a one-day pilot trip.

It took only about two hours from central Seoul to the North Korean city, just above the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, by bus on an overland route including entry procedures. Its easy access is expected to be one of the attractive features for South Korean travelers.

“Kaesong has lots of attractions from the rich cultural heritage of 500-years of Koryo history,’’ Shin Hee-soo, executive director of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO)’s inter-Korea tourism department, told The Korea Times.

The historic sites include Sonjuk Bridge, where high-ranking Koryo government official Chong Mong-ju was killed by Lee Song-gye, founder of the Choson Kingdom and the Confucian school of Songgyungwan. Parts of the school are now used as a Koryo museum.

Also located here are Kaesong Nasong, a fortress, and the royal mausoleum of King Wanggon, founder of Koryo. Natural resources such as Mt. Songak and Pakyon Falls are also popular.

“Travelers are also able to see North Koreans’ lives, as the tour buses pass Kaesong’s downtown. It will be another attraction, especially to the old people whose hometown was Kaesong,’’ Shin said.

Mt. Paektu

Last July, the KTO, Hyundai, and the North’s Asia-Pacific Peace Committee agreed to allow South Koreans to visit Mt. Paektu on the border of North Korea and China.

The KTO provided about 8,000 tons of asphalt pitch to the North to establish the tourism-based infrastructure on the mountain, including paving the runway of Samjiyon airport near the mountain.

The tour operators planned to conduct a pilot tour last year, but it was delayed until next April or May due to the dispute between the North and Hyundai over the dismissal of former Hyundai vice chairman Kim Yoon-kyu.

Last month, 15 delegates from the South inspected the repair work at Samjiyon airport.

The mountain is breathtakingly beautiful, comparable to the beauty of Mt. Kumgang. Some 20 peaks higher than 2,500 meters surround “Chonji,’’ the mountain-top crater lake.

Sunrise seen from the top, especially in August and September, is one of the must-sees of the trip to Mt. Paektu. Some 200 square meters of hot springs never freeze, even during winter.

“Mt. Paektu is more than a tourist attraction. It has a special meaning of the `spirit of Koreans.’ Many people have visited the mountain from the Chinese side, but the scene from the North’s side gives a different impression,’’ Shin said.


The North Korean capital may not be opened as a separate tourist attraction but is likely to be visited if the tour program for Mt. Paektu includes Pyongyang as a stopover, a Hyundai Asan worker said.

In October last year, about 140 South Koreans visited Pyongyang on a pilot trip. The city has many historic sites from the ancient Koguryo Kingdom and Tangun, the legendary founding father of Korea.

Their visit was, however, mainly focused on Mt. Myohyang near the capital, which is famous for autumn foliage.

Shin pointed out that the reclusive regime is not likely to open its capital wide to South Koreans, adding that visits may be made in the case of big events, such as the “Arirang’’ mass games which were held last year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party.

Obstacles to Trip to North Korea

The trip to the North has obstacles to overcome. The tours mainly target people whose homes were in North Korea or whose family members are still there.

But the numbers of such people are limited. The tours need other kinds of visitors to be successful. Besides the attraction of entering a `forbidden’ land, North Korea lacks features of interest to visitors.

A survey showed that 95 percent of the travelers to Mt. Kumgang were traveling there for the first time, indicating the small number of returning visitors. “Establishing golf courses and opening a beach at Mt. Kumgang are part of the efforts to increase repeat tourists,’’ Shin said.

Restrictions by North Korea also dampen the enjoyment of South Korean visitors, Shin pointed out. Visitors’ activities are strictly regulated, and the trips are limited to special times and places.

The trips to the North require harmony between the two governments, the people’s support, and a sense of duty as a “plus alpha’’ factor, he stressed.


Interview with a Citizen of Chongjin City

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Daily NK
Kim Young Jin

The DailyNK has reported North Korean news vividly with the help of the voices inside North Korea during the year 2005.

North Korea expressed farming as ‘the major front line for the construction of socialist economy’ in the joint new year editorial at the beginning of this year. In fact, it has made every effort to relieve its famine by mobilizing a number of people to farming for the entire year. In October, it also announced to its people that it would resume its ration system that had long been stopped.

The DailyNK met a citizen of Chongjin City of North Hamkyeong Province to fully grasp the recent situation of North Korea as a whole at this moment of seeing the old year out and the new year in. The interview is presented in the format of 10 questions and answers. The reader is expected to feel the reality of North Korea in mid-December, 2005 by reading the interview.

1.  How does the ration system work?
Workers in Giupso (State Owned Enterprise) receive a ration twice a month, the total ration being 700g a month. The government designated that the price of unglutinous rice is 46 won, while that of corn is 28 won. Those housewives who can work but stay home can buy 300g for 620 won. Children and the elderly, who are not able to work, can buy cereals at the government designated prices.

In short, the government has adopted a double price system. However, those who are rationed receive rice mixed with miscellaneous cereals whereas those who pay 620 won get unmixed rice.

Factories and Giupsos are assigned the farmland of No.112, and they have to produce cereals the quantity of which is equal to two month’s ration. In October, people were fully rationed, but since November, they have not been able to be fully rationed. People without the farmland of No.112 partly received their rations.

Additional question: What is the farmland of No.112?

It is a part of a cooperative farmland which is difficult to cultivate. Every factory and Giupso is assigned one. If a Giupso is influential, it is usually assigned a fertile land. It is so named because the policy was established on either November 2nd, last year or January 12th this year. I don’t remember the date.

2. How do people obtain their food if they are not fully rationed?
They get cereals in black markets. Transferring cereals in large scale is strictly prohibited, but people are selling them to acquaintances or under the cover of a bribe. Trading a large quantity of cereals is stealthily accomplished in a private home. Restaurants are also forbidden to sell processed cereals.

The price of rice has not risen. It ranges from 800 to 820 won ($0.4-0.41). The price of corn is 300 won ($0.15) while that of potatoes is 150 won ($0.075). Because people in Chongjin City do not enjoy eating corn, it is cheap here.

3. How are farmers rationed, and how much is the government’s purchasing price of cereals?
The farmland of No.112 is divided by fertility. The worst class is the 12th. 1,500 won ($0.75) is collected from 9,917.4 square meters of 12th class farmland as a tax. It can be payed with corn. 1kg of corn is bought for 24 won($0.012).

I heard a squad leader of a cooperative farm located near Chongjin say, “Every person on my farm was supposed to receive the prize of some 17,000 won ($8.5) because the government sent the prize to the farm for good farming, but the farm has not given the prize out to the people, saying that it would be a better idea for the money to be used to buy trucks and farm equipment, and thus people are full of complaints. The farm distributes ordinary rations to the workers.

4. What are people’s reactions to the resumption of the ration system like?
Most people are pessimistic about it. They grumble, “We do not understand why the government does not sell cereals indiscriminately. It has just made things complicated.” On the other hand, those who do not have a means of making a living hope for the ration system.

5. Do you have something to talk about regarding companies and work place lives?
In former years, there were people belonging to the circle called ‘the rest’ in companies. These people could do their own business by giving some part of their profits to their Giupso. However, all people are required to come to the Giupso to work these days. If there are some surplus workers, they are fired.

Since it was said that every Giupso should ration its workers, those who are not able to do their own businesses, especially women, have made every effort to be employed by a Giupso.

Rich people are not interested in companies, but the poor are full of complaints because ‘the rest’ circle was eliminated. The poor are getting much more interested in job opportunities.

6. As far as I know, the rate of factory operation is 20% or so. Has there been any changes recently?
No, there is almost no change in the rate. Earning foreign money is active, but I’ve never heard that those factories that had stopped before resumed its operation, or that they changed their business category to be operative.

7. Can you come up with a concrete example that shows that the status of partisans is getting lower?
Factories and Giupsos are reluctant to employ partisans because it is difficult to lay them off. If one says he is a partisan during a job interview, he will probably be turned down. Non-partisans are definitely preferred.

8. Is the control over people getting tighter?
The control in matters of food is getting tight. Because controlling restaurants and processed cereals has been getting tighter, more and more stalls are being emptied in markets, and the price of stalls is decreasing. A stall 50cm wide and 1.5m long for selling apparel can be bought for 120,000 won ($60).

Food for a family of 4 members costs 120-130 thousand won ($60-65) a month. The family also has to spend money for housing and clothing.

Additional question: I heard that even though many people are moving from one place to another, and a number of people dare to complain, punishments are getting weaker and weaker. Can you give me some examples regarding that?

The security agents say that they no longer arrest blasphemers. They even say that they will enforce laws on the basis of scientific evidences. (Blasphemers refer to those who blaspheme the system of the Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il regime.)

Punishments for defectors, radio listeners, and other such crimes are considerably moderated.

A neighbor in his 70’s was arrested due to his acquaintance’ betrayal. He revealed that he had been listening to the radio, but he was just called names during the investigation and criticized publicly in front of a crowd of people. That was the punishment. Even though blaspheming is said to be forgiven, you cannot call Kim Jong Il’s name. Maybe it would be okay for you to say South Korea is rich.

Additional question: Recently, it has been reported that Kim Jong Il ordered that torturing be checked and human rights be respected. Have you ever heard from security agents such a story or instructions?

No, I’ve never heard that.

Additional questions: Because punishments are getting moderated, what kind of countermeasures do North Korea take to protect the regime?

The National Security Agency is said to employ and use many informants. It lets people watch each other. According to one of my acquaintances, those who have an experience of escaping from the North are especially encouraged to watch each other.

9. How is the electric power supply like?
Electric power is supplied for 3 to 4 hours a day from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Middle class people usually have both a black and white TV set and a color TV set. They use only batteries for the black and white TV. Electric power supply is poor for winter. It starts getting better in the spring and is best in summer.

10. Recently, North Koreans are said to widely use horse-drawn or cow-drawn carriages. Is that true?
They are widely used for carrying cargo. They are seen even in urban cities. Recently, individuals or Giupsos are trading cows. The price of a cow in black markets range from 400 to 700 thousand won ($200-350). Recently, the price for using such a carriage is determined in relation to the distance instead of the weight it should carry. 3 to 4km costs 2,000 won ($1), while anything more than 5km costs 3,000 won ($1.5). The weight of the cargo usually does not exceed 700kg.

If one uses a truck, he must pay for the fuel in addition to the fee. 1kg of diesel costs 2,000 won ($1).


North Korea’s Kim Allows Tentative Stirrings of Profit Motive

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Bradley K. Martin

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

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

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

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

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

Casino Pyongyang

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

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

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

Natural Resources

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

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

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

Oil Potential

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

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

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

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

Six-Party Talks

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

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

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

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

Excessive Optimism

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

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

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

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

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

China, Russia

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

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

Vietnam Example

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

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

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

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

Food Insecurity

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

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

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

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

Economic Rules

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Timber Business

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

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

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

Mining for Gold

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

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

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

Foreign-Run Bank

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

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

Better Living Conditions

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

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

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

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

`WMD Trafficking’

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

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

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

Money Laundering Banned

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

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

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

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


Throwing resources at Pyongyang

Sunday, December 25th, 2005

Asia Times
Ruediger Frank

The focus of international efforts in North Korea used to be on food aid until a government policy change this fall. Now that the North Korean regime has sent home humanitarian non-governmental organizations and reinforced the public food distribution system, outside attention has shifted to developmental assistance.

However, the basic question remains the same: will international support improve the situation in North Korea or just prop up the regime? It will probably do both, partly because North Korea and the regime are are not easily separable. But are there any visible developments that would justify taking the pain of further outside engagement?

Thinking that the past years went by without any significant economic change in North Korea would mean ignoring reality.

Walking through an extraordinary, festive Pyongyang in October – freely, without any guide – I found a handwritten poster (in Korean) at a watch store reading, “To celebrate the important holiday [60th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean Workers’ Party], we are selling many goods at a 10% discount from October 10 until October 31.”

In other words, there was a sale – in North Korea. Better than any official announcements, this tells a whole story. In an ordinary socialist shop, from the perspective of the employees, selling means the investment of time without any revenue. Neither their income nor job security are usually connected to sales figures. Those familiar with other socialist countries will recall the lack of staff enthusiasm and customer orientation in shops and restaurants. Selling more than the plan dictates could even invite trouble because of empty inventory.

Prices are usually fixed by the state and not negotiable; a socialist store in fact does not sell, it distributes. In such an environment, attracting buyers by giving a discount makes no sense at all. Having a sale implies an interest in selling, as well as price flexibility. It implies an interest in the customers, and hence the readiness to respond to their needs. The motivation surely is money; at least the manager of the store has a vested interest in raising the sales figures. A sale in North Korea? Can this be a harbinger of the start of a paradigm shift? Despite all skepticism vis-a-vis the reforms, monetization and marketization seem to be no empty words.

A few steps later, I saw an advertisement offering coffee, tea, “fresh beer” and a cozy place to play Korean chess (again, in Korean – ie, targeting domestic customers). So far, so good, but this was a clothing store. Obviously not allowed to turn into a restaurant, its staff were at least trying to extend its reach. Near my hotel I found an advertisement for “the first debit card in our country”, issued by the North East Asia Bank.

Currently, it can only be used in roughly a dozen shops and restaurants. Still, this is a beginning. Some traders were ready to bargain, which implies private economic activity or at least growing flexibility. In one small but nicely arranged shop, not in the vicinity of a hotel, I found Chanel handbags at a very reasonable price, tags written in Korean but with prices also in US dollars. The same currency, not the euro, is required to purchase a ticket at the Air Koryo (the North’s state airline) office in Beijing. A North Korean official asked me to send him English-language economics textbooks for his daughter who studies at Kim Il-sung University, and would not mind if I sent him the books via ordinary mail. This list of examples can be continued.

Beyond this anecdotal but significant evidence, there are other developments. For the second year in a row, North Korean agriculture was able to increase its output significantly (Yonhap News, “USDA Estimates North Korea’s Grain Output as Largest in 10 Years”, November 28). Analysts were quick to discard the idea that the famine of 1995-1997 was mainly caused by natural disasters; so it would be unfair to associate the positive development this time only to good weather. The attempts to utilize market incentives to increase production have been effective, although not without unexpected side effects.

In China and Vietnam, too, initially nobody wanted to change the whole economic system. Even in the 1990s, Chinese economists were talking about a secondary and supplementary role of the non-state sector. But successful experiments prompted new ones, leading to the stop-and-go piecemeal approach that we now, in hindsight, recognize to have been the beginnings of gradual transformation. The external situation was more favorable there also. So there is room for optimism concerning North Korea.

A huge and important difference between the North Korean case and that of China and Vietnam is the weight of agriculture in the national economy and in society. About 80% of the population in Vietnam and 70% of the population in China worked in agriculture at the start of the reform process, as opposed to only about 30% in North Korea. Liberalizing food trade in a non-saturated and isolated market implies rising food prices. This is good for food producers, but may signal rising prices for consumers. In China and Vietnam in 1979, a majority benefited, while only a minority was forced to bear heavier costs in exchange for diversified supplies, and hence could be supported by state subsidies.

Because of its different socio-economic structure, in North Korea it has been the other way round. The majority of the population had to use their few and mostly static resources to struggle for food in the market and this drove up prices as well as industrial wages. Accordingly, inflation in North Korea skyrocketed, while it was much more moderate in the early reform phase in the other two countries.

“Skyrocketing inflation” is not just an empty phrase. Due to the lack of data, there is so far no reliable way to calculate a North Korean inflation rate based on the standard method of creating a basket of basic goods and services. But the development of wages should provide us with important clues, assuming that wages must at least cover subsistence. Otherwise, nobody would go to work. I asked a worker at a cable factory in Pyongyang in October about his monthly wage, and he answered it was 30,000 won (US$29). Would he tell a foreigner the truth?

The number he provided appears to be very high, if compared to the official wages that have been raised from about 100 won to roughly 3,000 won in 2002, and allegedly have only reluctantly been paid. However, in addition to a few private shops, I also entered several state-run department stores in Pyongyang, in which goods are displayed at official state prices. Some examples: a pair of very basic sports shoes cost 10,000 won, a bar of soap was 600 won, a wall clock cost 8,500 won. This suggests the possibility that the worker was telling the truth. Based on this evidence, if the wages increased tenfold in three years, we can estimate the annual rate of inflation in North Korea to have been roughly about 215% since 2002.

If this is roughly accurate, the situation is politically not sustainable. So in October, the government put on the brakes, hoping to curb inflation by taking its major source – food – out of the market cycle. Will it work? That remains to be seen. Are the reforms over? Is avoiding reform the surest survival strategy for the elite in Pyongyang? I would disagree with such a view. If the whole world around North Korea moves – and it certainly does – the riskiest course may be to remain static. So, even if the preservation of the status quo is the objective of the elite, in the long run it must work actively to achieve that goal. Strange as it may sound, reform is the only way to avoid regime change. Kim Jong-il calls that “adjusting to the new environment”.

This brings us back to the international community. Assuming that domestic agricultural production is still, despite the increases in the last years, insufficient – does North Korea now “rely” on food deliveries from China and South Korea? That would be something revolutionary in its own right. If true, it must mean that the North Koreans see no alternative to reliance on Chinese and South Korean food aid in the short run. But if history is a guide, they will hardly bet their future on it.

Rather, the intention seems to be to repeat what in principle has already been done after another major crisis. During the Korean War until about 1953-54, Kim Il-sung asked his “socialist brothers” mainly for conventional aid, such as food, clothing, etc. Then, the items on his wish list changed to support for reconstruction and the delivery of machinery, technology and even turnkey factories. Today, we would call that developmental assistance. Of course, the current situation is in many ways different from the 1950s. Yet a similar pattern may be unfolding.

So, what is the plan? In perfect congruence with the spirit of juche, (self-reliance) the North Koreans now do what economist David Ricardo would and what European experts including myself at economic seminars in Pyongyang have told them for years: ensure self-sustainability in food by increasing industrial output, exporting it and using the revenues to import food to supplement domestic production.

Before 1990, the North Koreans had the opportunity to engage in “politically correct” trade with socialist partners, who, for strategic reasons, often could not avoid buying low-quality goods. Now, if they want to export, the North Koreans have few alternatives to dealing with capitalists. Even the highly cooperative partners in South Korea are private companies that will go bankrupt if they purchase worthless or over-priced goods. North Korea’s industry has no choice but to become competitive.

The logical consequence is the urgent need for modernization, the introduction of advanced technology, securing a stable energy supply, the import of capital and the development of an institutional and human resource capability to interact on the international scene. This is behind Pyongyang’s focus on intensified economic training measures for its officials, and the background of the recent news about eased regulations for direct investment in North Korea (Hankook Ilbo newspaper, November 30). This is even more so since normalization with Japan and the expected financial support related to that deal are not out of reach, though still too far away.

The reforms are not necessarily over; the leaders in Pyongyang might just have adjusted their strategy. Rome was not built in a day, and the risks are high from the perspective of the North Korean leadership. International support will continue to be an important and effective policy, as it obviously was in the past, although its nature might change and the impact will not always be directly measurable. However, it works. The few millions spent on projects in North Korea are a low price for regional security and improved living conditions.

Ruediger Frank is a Korea specialist at the University of Vienna and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Korea University.


Education fights outside influences

Saturday, December 24th, 2005

From the LA Times:

More than 100 pages of written lectures smuggled out of North Korea this year reveal that the leadership is in a state of near-hysteria about outside influences seeping across the nation’s once hermetically sealed borders. The spread of “unusual lifestyles,” the lectures warn listeners, could render them “incapable of following revolutionary thoughts and sacrificing their lives” for Kim.

The documents also underscore the extent to which anti-Americanism gives meaning to the country and its people. More than 50 years after the end of the Korean War, the United States is blamed for all of North Korea’s woes, from food shortages to the infiltration of foreign culture.

In the last several years, trade between North Korea and China has surged, much of it not approved by North Korea’s leaders. Along with food and consumer goods, traders smuggle in DVDs, tapes, books and Bibles, radios and mobile phones. Once considered taboo, T-shirts with English lettering are pouring into North Korean markets from Chinese garment factories.

The regime fears not only critical material but depictions of other nations that would make North Koreans realize how poor they are in comparison.

“The enemies use these videos and specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism … and to [spread] a fantasy of the free world,” one lecture says. North Koreans are urged to steel themselves against such corrupting influences by eating traditional foods, wearing traditional clothing and keeping their hair tidy.


Pay Special Attention to North Korean Diplomats’ Passports

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

Daily NK
Kwak Dae Jung

On March 31st, 1970, Yodo of JAL (Japan Airlines) was hijacked on the way from Tokyo to Fukuoka. The hijackers were Japanese youngsters aged from the teens to twenties who dreamed of a simultaneous revolution of the world. They called themselves the Japanese Red Army (JRA).

They headed for North Korea. In fact, their planned destination had been Cuba, but North Korea suddenly came to their mind as the nearest Communist country they could reach with the hijacked domestic airplane. North Korea has protected these terrorists as political refugees since then.

News about the 9 hijackers of Yodo has not been reported except that they lived in the lodgings that North Korea provided near Pyongyang. In 1998, one of the hijackers was arrested in Japan. It was disclosed that he had smuggled himself into Japan three years ago.

In 1996, another hijacker was arrested. His name was Tanaka Yosimi. He was 21 years old when he took part in the hijacking. At the time of arrest, he was 47 years old. He was arrested not in Japan, nor in North Korea, but near the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. He carried a North Korean diplomat’s passport whose holder was named Kim Il Soo. In his suitcase were Super Notes the face value of which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.

The former hijacker was arrested for passing forgeries after 25 years of hiding. The so-called Super Note is also referred to as Super K because its serial number starts with K. Super Notes are still found all around the world 10 years after his arrest. He had been closely followed by the U.S. Treasury’s Secret Service (SS), a special bureau to investigate forgery, since his several year operations in Southeast Asia had been sensed.

Tanaka Yosimi was judged not guilty regarding the counterfeit bills after a three year trial in Thailand. His consistent denial of possessing the forgeries seemed to work for him. However, he was sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment regarding his participation in the hijacking after he was taken to Japan in 2000.

Many forgeries were found in 1996

One reason to suspect North Korea counterfeiting dollars is that many people with a North Korean diplomat’s passport like Tanaka Yosimi were caught and arrested for having bundles of counterfeit U.S. dollar bills.

1996 saw many cases of arrests for passing North Korean forgeries. In March, while Tanaka Yosimi was arrested in Thailand, a North Korean official resident in Moscow, Russia was expelled because he was caught changing 800 thousand counterfeit U.S. dollars. An officer in the North Korean embassy in Hanoi was also caught carrying 3 million counterfeit U.S. dollars, and all his forgeries were confiscated by the Vietnamese authorities. Later the Vietnamese government returned the forgeries to North Korea because the North consistently claimed that the counterfeit bills were its property.

In December, a third-grade officer in the North Korean consulate in Ulan-Bator, Mongolia, was exiled because he was captured changing 100 thousand counterfeit U.S. dollars. 75 thousand counterfeit dollars were withdrawn, but the rest could not. Also in December, a North Korean trade counselor in Rumania was exiled because he was caught changing 50 thousand counterfeit dollars.

The following are the reasons why many forgery cases were disclosed in 1996: ▲ The method of how Super Notes can be identified has been found and widely known since they were first discovered in 1994. ▲ The U.S. information agency consistently chased them in cooperation with international societies. ▲ North Korea was pressed to pass them quickly because the U.S. changed its 100 dollar bill after 68 years of use.

In April, 1998, Gil Jae Kyung, who was the accountant in charge of Kim Jong Il’s slush fund, and who had died in 2000, was caught changing 30 thousand counterfeit dollars in Vladivostok, Russia. At the moment, he was carrying a passport on which the name of Lee Moon Moo was printed as its holder’s name. He insisted that he was Lee Moon Moo, a trade counselor in the North Korean embassy in Moscow. When his identity as Kim Jong Il’s private accountant was disclosed, it made sensational news.

American and Russian forgery inspectors had sensed Gil Jae Kyung’s passing forgeries several times and followed him for some months. On the other hand, in 1976 Gil Jae Kyung was expelled from Sweden because he was captured bootlegging narcotics. At the time, he was the North Korean ambassador to Sweden.

As seen from above, most North Korean forgery holders have been camouflaged as diplomats. If it had been a country other than North Korea, considerable diplomatic friction could have occurred, but North Korea was so notorious for international crimes that those countries concerned did not raise much complaint.

In August, 1995, a Japanese businessman was paid 10 thousand dollars with counterfeit bills for his trade with North Korea. The North Korean trade company said they had not known that, which seems to have been a mere excuse. It is resonable to assume that the North Korean trade company was connected with the North Korean forgery ring because it would be impossible to be able to hold a bundle of 100 counterfeit hundred dollar bills without any connection.


Is the DPRK tightening its grip or reforming?

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

A writer with the Institute for Internaitonal Economics has published an oped in the Herald Tribune on December 22, 2005:

Here is the Summary:

  • Economy collapsed in 1990s with weather, end of Soviet aid, and bad policy
  • 1995, DPRK asks for help..WFP feeds b/n 1/4 and 1/3 of population
  • as the state was unable to feed the people, bottom-up marketization grew
  • Now there is a revival of the PDS and controls on travel (which were suspended during the famine)
  • Grains can no longer be sold at market, and supplies are being seized
  • This incentivises farmers to harvest early, hoarding and running secret plots
  • A revival of the failed socialist model would not only mark a U-turn in North Korea’s reforms, but would also set the stage for a recurrence of humanitarian problems in the future.

Counterfeiting Cases Point to North Korea

Monday, December 12th, 2005

Los Angeles times
Josh Meyer and Barbara Demick

Pyongyang is accused of being behind a growing effort to print and move rafts of U.S. $100 bills.

The counterfeiting operation began a quarter of a century ago, he recalled, at a government mint built into a mountain in the North Korean capital.

Using equipment from Japan, paper from Hong Kong and ink from France, a team of experts was ordered to make fake U.S. $100 bills, said a former North Korean chemist who said his job was to draw the design.

“The main motive was to make money, but the secondary motive was inspired by anti- Americanism,” said the chemist, now 56 and living in South Korea.

Before long, sheets with 30 bills each were rolling off the printing presses. By 1989, millions of dollars’ worth of high-quality fakes were showing up around the world. U.S. investigators dubbed them “supernotes” because they were virtually indistinguishable from American currency. The flow of forged bills has continued ever since, U.S. officials say, despite a redesign intended to make the cash harder to replicate.

For 15 years, U.S. officials suspected that the North Korean leadership was behind the counterfeiting, but they revealed almost nothing about their investigations into the bogus bills or their efforts to stop them. Now, however, federal authorities are pursuing at least four criminal cases and one civil enforcement action involving supernotes.

U.S. authorities have unsealed hundreds of pages of documents in support of the cases in recent months, including an indictment that directly accuses North Korea of making the counterfeit bills, the first time the U.S. has made such an allegation in a criminal case.

The documents paint a portrait of an extensive criminal network involving North Korean diplomats and officials, Chinese gangsters and other organized crime syndicates, prominent Asian banks, Irish guerrillas and an alleged ex-KGB agent.

The criminal cases and U.S. Treasury enforcement action are part of a concerted campaign to deprive North Korea of as much as $500 million a year from counterfeiting currency and other criminal activities, senior U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials say.

The officials say criminal syndicates in South America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere have also churned out large sums of fake U.S. cash. But North Korea’s is the only government believed to do so, despite international pressure and laws that characterize such activity as an economic casus belli, or act of war, they say.

“It is simply unacceptable for a member of the international community to engage in this type of irresponsible conduct as a matter of state policy, and [North Korea] needs to cease its criminal financial activities,” Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, said in an interview. “Until then, the United States will take the necessary actions to protect the U.S. and international financial systems from this type of misconduct.”

In the fall, the U.S. unsealed an indictment against the head of an Irish Republican Army splinter group alleging that “quantities of the supernote were manufactured in, and under auspices of the government of, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” as North Korea is formally known. North Korea’s government in Pyongyang strenuously denied wrongdoing.

A report by North Korea’s official news service called the charges “a clumsy and base political farce” by a Bush administration intent on toppling the communist government.

David L. Asher, an administration point man on North Korean issues until this summer, said there was overwhelming evidence that Pyongyang had become a brazen “criminal state” reliant on illicit activity, in part to finance its nuclear weapons program.

“This is state-sponsored counterfeiting. I don’t know of any other case like this except the Nazis, and they were doing it in a state of war,” said Asher, who headed the administration’s North Korea Working Group and was the State Department’s senior advisor for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

The administration, he said, has made a strategic decision to press the issue, even if doing so affects delicate six-nation talks aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear arms.

“The administration made a determination early on that irrespective of what happened in diplomacy, this should not be tolerated,” Asher said.

U.S. authorities say the increasingly high-profile campaign against the counterfeiting is proceeding amid information that North Korea is minting more American currency than ever before and smuggling it and other contraband, such as weapons and knockoff pharmaceuticals, directly into the United States. A number of U.S. officials who are knowledgeable about the campaign spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s political sensitivity.

U.S. authorities fear that the communist state has been able to step up its illicit activities by forging more alliances with transnational organized crime syndicates.

Those alliances have made Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear arsenal and other weapons more vulnerable to theft by rogue elements of the North Korean government and sale to nuclear traffickers or terrorists, the U.S. officials said. They worry that the same pipelines used to smuggle fake currency into the United States could be used to traffic in weapons of mass destruction.

An unclassified version of a March report to U.S. lawmakers by the independent research arm of Congress warned that North Korea’s increasing reliance on criminal networks meant it may not be able to curtail its illegal activities even if it wanted to.

“Korean crime-for-profit activity,” analyst Raphael Pen of the Congressional Research Service wrote, “may become a ‘runaway train,’ gaining momentum, but out of control.”

Extending the Network

One of the first places authorities picked up the supernotes’ frail was Ireland, more than 5,000 miles away from North Korea. By the early 1990s, so many supemotes were circulating there that Irish banks stopped exchanging American $100 bills.

The Secret Service soon homed in on Sean Garland, whose exploits with the Irish Republican Army years earlier had made him a local hero.

Garland was chief of staff of the Official Irish Republican Army, or Old IRA, after it split with other IRA factions in 1969 and became the most left-leaning. He also heads its political wing, the Irish Workers’ Party, in Northern Ireland. In that capacity, Garland traveled extensively to see Socialist and Communist party leaders in the Soviet bloc and, authorities contend, North Korea.

According to Garland’s indictment in federal court in Washington this year, which was unsealed this fall, his discussions with North Korean operatives eventually turned from a shared rejection of capitalism to a scheme for him to buy bogus $100 bills, perhaps to destabilize the U.S. dollar by flooding the market with fakes.

The former North Korean chemist, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, said that over the years, people from China, Hong Kong, Japan and other countries helped distribute the bills. “There was a lot of cooperation with Ireland,” he said.

In the indictment and in interviews, U.S. authorities said Garland ultimately teamed up with Old IRA members, street crooks and an alleged former member of the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service. They said the men traveled widely to circulate the bills and sell them to customers who would buy suitcases full at wholesale prices.

The indictment accuses Garland and six other men of buying, selling and circulating fake U.S. $100 bills during the l990s. Authorities say they passed up to $28 million worth of bogus currency.

From 1997 to 2000, the group bought, sold and circulated the counterfeit notes in Russia, Belarus, Poland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Germany, the indictment says. It alleges, in detail, that couriers made frequent ferry trips to Ireland loaded down with real cash to pay Garland for the counterfeits.

Authorities said Garland did much of his business with North Korean suppliers at Pyongyang’s embassies in Moscow and, later, Minsk, Belarus, using his status as a Workers’ Party official as cover.

Things began to unravel in 1999, when Garland’s group allegedly went ahead with a deal to sell $1 million in supernotes to a pair of undercover agents posing as wholesalers.

Authorities in Britain described the counterfeit ring as the largest of its kind in their country’s history. But Garland wasn’t arrested or charged until British authorities, acting on a U.S. warrant, took the 71-year-old into custody Oct. 7 in a hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

U.S. Takes Action

The U.S. quickly moved to extradite Garland. But when he was released for medical treatment, he fled to Ireland, which has no extradition treaty with the U.S.

In a recent statement, Garland insisted that the U.S. charges were baseless and politically motivated. He vowed in an Internet posting to surrender for trial if it were by a jury in Ireland.

No North Korean citizens or front organizations are charged or even identified in the Garland indictment. U.S. authorities would not say whether any of the 10 unnamed and unindicted coconspirators listed in the document were from North Korea.

Charming Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, would not comment on why authorities waited until this year to obtain a grand jury indictment, which alleges criminal acts only through mid-2000. He also would not say whether other suspects from North Korea or elsewhere had been identified or charged under seal.

“I can only say that the case is continuing,” Phillips said.

The chemist, though, said the counterfeit bills were routinely used by North Korean officials.

“Any North Korean official who goes abroad has to change a big note and bring back small, real currency,” he said. “If you come back with real money, you get medals.”

When he decided to flee North Korea in 2000, he crossed into China with thousands of dollars in counterfeit notes, he said. When Chinese police caught him without official papers, they kept $4,000 of the fake cash and let him go.

“Thanks to that money,” he said, “my translator and I were released.”

Besides the Garland case, U.S. officials say three criminal cases the Justice Department is pursuing offer evidence that North Korea is intensiing its efforts to chum out fake U.S. money and conspire with organized crime to smuggle the bills and counterfeit drugs and other products into the United States.

None of those cases explicitly mentions North Korea, but they refer to a foreign country that several U.S. sources say is North Korea.

One case involves supernotes, drug trafficking and three suspected members of a Chinese crime syndicate who were arrested in the Mariana Islands last year.

According to federal court documents and interviews, the Justice Department’s central money- laundering section continues to present evidence in the case to a federal grand jury.

In the two other cases, dubbed Operation Smoking Dragon and Operation Royal Charm, at least 87 people have been arrested or indicted in New Jersey and California on charges of smuggling or conspiring to smuggle at least $6 million in counterfeit cash, knockoff viagra, brand-name cigarettes and weapons into the United States from “Country A” and “Country B.”

Several U.S. officials said those countries were North Korea and China and that the money was printed by the North Korean government.

One of the alleged ringleaders, Co Khanh Tang, told undercover agents in April that he was expecting an especially lucrative product from suppliers in China: “new and better samples” of counterfeit U.S. currency, the indictment against him says.

Stuart Levey, a top Treasury Department official, said North Korea recently began churning out improved copies of U.S. bills.

In October, Levey headed a Treasury delegation to Beijing, Macao and Hong Kong, where he pressed government officials and banking executives for more help in cracking down on North Korean counterfeiters and banks that helped them.

Just before the trip, the Treasury Department designated an Asian financial institution, Macaobased Banco Delta Asia SARL, as a “primary money-laundering concein” under the Patriot Act.

U.S. authorities allege that the bank was a longtime pawn of North Korean front companies, which used it to conduct ‘illegal activities, including distributing counterfeit currency and smuggling counterfeit tobacco products” and aid North Korean drug-trafficking efforts.

The bank denied any intentional wrongdoing and later cut off several dozen clients — including 40

North Korean people and businesses — replaced several managers and allowed a panel named by

Macao’s government to administer its operations.

The U.S. sanctions on the bank, as well as those against several North Korean companies accused

of helping proliferate weapons of mass destruction, have inthriated North Korea. The nation is threatening to boycott disarmament talks unless the United States reverses course. The Smoking Dragon case has raised concerns beyond counterfeiting.

In court documents, prosecutors allege that Tang and another suspect offered undercover FBI agents a catalog of weapons available for purchase from the arsenals of at least two foreign countries, believed to be North Korea and China.

The agents ordered dozens of AK-47 assault rifles and in July 2004 began negotiating a deal for surface-to-air missiles “manufactured by communist countries,” an indictment said.

The indictment added that the agents were told the weapons’ high prices were “necessitated by the need to bribe officials” of at least one of the foreign governments.

Asher, the former State Department official, asserted in a November speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington that absent a worldwide crackdown on North Korean counterfeiting and the government’s other illicit activities, the country would continue to rely on criminal profits to maintain its political isolation and its nuclear program and to withstand pressure to reform.

“Given that periodic exposure of illegal dealings by North Korean officials overseas in the past has not resulted in serious or lasting consequences,” Asher said, “Pyongyang may believe that an open door for global criminality exists.”


Banking steps towards the real world

Monday, December 12th, 2005

FDI Magazine
Stephen Timewell

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?

Information hollow

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.”

Economic estimates

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.

Trade predictions

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.

Political effects
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.