Filling North Korea’s bare shelves

Asia Times
Ting-I Tsai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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