Chinese Entrepreneurs Poised to Pounce on North Korean Border

Bradley Martin, Allen Cheng

Chinese entrepreneur He Ho was burned by his first North Korean investment, a bakery in the shabby border city of Sinuiju. He lost his entire $20,000 when the plan to make the city a special economic zone stalled in 2003.

If another opportunity comes along, though, “I’ll be the first to go in,” the 34-year-old said in an interview in Dandong, the bustling Chinese city facing Sinuiju across the Yalu River. “North Korea’s a good investment because so many things are lacking.”

Business executives in Dandong, one of the main conduits for trade in and out of North Korea, see opportunity in the recent six-nation agreement to end Kim Jong Il’s nuclear-weapons program. They think the 65-year-old North Korean leader will now focus on fixing his country’s nearly flattened economy and may revive plans for a special economic zone — an area designed to promote foreign investment, with fewer rules and regulations than elsewhere in the country — on the western border with China.

“Most of North Korea’s trade with China is via Dandong, so a special zone in this corridor could make sense,” said Marcus Noland, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “This could be the North Korean equivalent of the Chinese coastal SEZs in the early years of the Chinese reform.”

No Guarantee

There’s no guarantee against another disappointment for entrepreneurs like He Ho, said Peter Beck, Seoul-based Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that works to resolve crises around the world.

“The eternal optimist in me hopes that Kim will see the light and recognize the direction in which he needs to lead the economy,” Beck said in a telephone interview. “But the jury’s still out.”

At the same time, “the North Koreans have been talking about putting a special economic zone in the far northwest aimed at China for a decade,” said the Peterson Institute’s Noland. “If they get the politics right, this venture could work.”

China is North Korea’s top trading partner, with 2006 exports of $1.23 billion and imports of $468 million, according to its Ministry of Commerce.

A little over a year ago, Kim visited six booming Chinese cities, including the special economic zone of Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong. North Korea’s Central News Agency described the nine-day trip as a visit to places “where the cause of modernization is being successfully carried out.”

Executives’ Speculation

Business executives in Dandong speculate that North Korea will develop a new zone in Cholsan County, a peninsula on the east side of the mouth of the Yalu some 50 to 60 kilometers (31 to 37 miles) south of Dandong and Sinuiju. China’s commerce and foreign ministries and North Korea’s embassy in Beijing didn’t respond to faxed requests to comment on their plans.

In 1991, North Korea built a special economic zone at Rajin-Sonbong, in the remote northeast of the country, which has failed to attract much foreign investment because of its location.  Another zone near the southern border at Gaeseong, only 60 kilometers from Seoul, has proven more popular, especially with South Korean manufacturers in search of low-cost labor.

In 2002, North Korea announced plans for the zone in Sinuiju, which would have included export factories and casinos to lure gamblers from China. Kim named Dutch-Chinese businessman Yang Bin governor of the zone. China, which hadn’t given its approval, squelched the plan by arresting Yang and jailing him in 2003 on charges of fraud and illegal land use.

Strained Relations

Kim’s test of a nuclear device in October, which strained relations with the Beijing government, didn’t halt commerce on the border, according to Shen Yuhai, general manager of Dandong Jade Ocean Trade Co. “We didn’t stop trading at any time,” he said in a recent interview.

Shen’s office overlooks a busy parking lot where Chinese customs officials examine trucks departing neon-lit, high-rise Dandong for the run-down and darkened Sinuiju.

The trucks cross on the Friendship Bridge’s single lane in the morning with manufactured goods and return in the evening, either empty or carrying minerals, silkworm cocoons and seafood, Shen said. Four trains a week cross in each direction, connecting the North Korean capital of Pyongyang with Beijing.

China is supplying its neighbor with “daily necessities, home electrical appliances and, in this season, farming tools and chemical fertilizer,” said Shen.

While business is booming, he said he’s still cautious about the risks. He requests payment in yuan, dollars or euros, not North Korean won, and accepts bank transfers only after business relations have been established.

Even then, he said, “sometimes we are cheated.”

–With additional reporting by Hideko Takayama in Tokyo and Lee Spears and Dune Lawrence in Beijing.

For a copy of a list of banned goods to North Korea:


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