North Korean-China trade hotter than kimchi

Asia Times
Ting-I Tsai

Business in Changbai county of Jilin province in northeast China is booming. The area, which faces North Korea’s Hyesan City across the Yalu River, has seen its exports rise 28.5% year-on-year in the first eight months of this year, the beneficiary of logjams created by China’s brisk trade with North Korea further downstream to Dandong – the busiest border city in northeast China bordering North Korea’s Shinuiju across the Yalu River.

As ice is melting between North Korea and the United States, more and more Chinese businessmen have been rushing to the border with the secretive communist country, looking to cash in on its trade and investment potential.

“Traffic across the river has been so busy,” said Han Lihsin, who founded a China-Korea trade website to promote business with China’s reclusive neighbor in April last year. “It is not only trucks from China that have to line up to go through customs, North Koreans have also sent their own trucks to pick up goods.”

According to statistics from Chinese Customs, bilateral trade between North Korea and China reached US$1.7 billion in 2006, a 7.58% increase over the previous year. It has grown another 16.7% in the first eight months of this year to $1.25 billion. Chinese investment in North Korea, meanwhile, had reached $38 million by the end of 2006.

China’s main exports include agricultural products, consumer electronics, textiles and fuel, but North Korean traders are taking advantage of the Internet to diversify their purchases. On China’s business promotion websites, buyers claiming to be from North Korea are asking for items as varied as wine coolers, necklaces, leather suitcases, soybean oil, pencil cases and “plastic containers for aromas or perfume”.

Whether North Koreans now have more money and are able to consume more remains a hotly debated issue among Chinese traders. But they agree that North Korean customers are now more sensitive to product quality and brands. “It’s not just about being cheap anymore. Products are required to be affordable with guaranteed quality,” said Tang Fuyou, manager of Dandong-based

To overcome North Korean customers’ resistance to Chinese products, Tang says suppliers now market products with brand names and descriptions printed in English on the packaging. Small “Made in China” markings are placed in unobtrusive spots. “That way, goods can be sold for good prices,” he said, adding that South Korean and Japanese products are still too expensive for North Koreans.

Used televisions, washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners are at the top of North Korean shopping lists. Hoping to ride the wave of this new demand for big-ticket household goods, China’s leading home appliance exporter Haier has reportedly been operating across the border since January of this year.

Traders aren’t the only ones looking to profit from North Korea. Burdened by soaring labor costs and high land prices, Chinese businessmen are finding this virgin territory to be a potential paradise.

Xu You, chairman of the Changbai-based China-North Korea investment association, suggested that his joint-venture wood factory pays 10 yuan (US$1.3) per month to its North Korean workers. Trader Wang Wei, whose Hsienhe pharmaceutical manufacturing company is planning to build a new factory in North Korea’s Nanpo, suggested that monthly salaries there average about 50 yuan.

Ambitious North Korean officials might not appreciate the intricacies of capitalist operations, but they have skillfully extended their networks for soliciting investment by touting the country’s advantages of cheap land and labor. North Korean websites based in China are advertising a broad range of investment opportunities, including in the areas of energy, restaurants and hotels, agriculture, mining, manufacturing and general infrastructure.

Among the approximately 100 projects circulating on these websites, hotels and electricity generation seem to be particular targets. One calls for a $30-45 million investment in Pyongyang’s yet finished tallest building, the Ryugyong Hotel, while another requires a $50-60 million investment for the Taedong-gang Hotel. Stakes in expansions of fuel-fired power plants are being offered for $100-200 million, and, hoping to take advantage of green energy, projects to develop wind and solar power also appear but minus a price tag.

As for manufacturing, projects to make elevators, freezers, electronic watches, shoes, sewing machines and even disposable diapers all require foreign investments in the form of machines, technology and raw materials.

At the urging of North Korean officials, investors Xu and Wang are now involved in pitching investments south of the Yalu to other Chinese prospects. According to Wang, Pearl River delta-based Chinese businessmen have expressed the most interest in relocating their factories, with 30 to 50 investment projects currently under negotiation.

Among those still concerned about the high uncertainty of operating in North Korea, some have chosen to set up an office in Pyongyang and bide their time until a timely opportunity emerges.

Aware of the growing significance of the bilateral commercial relationship, China’s central government and three provinces near the North Korean border – Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang – have all made efforts to boost bilateral cooperation.

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 in January 2006, Wen introduced new economic-cooperation guidelines.

In July of this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi noted during his three-day visit to Pyongyang that economic cooperation was an important part of China’s relations with the North, and said China would continue to promote cooperation by following the previous agreements and guidelines.

Provincial governments, meanwhile, have been promoting cross-border trade by attending and holding trade shows and building new trade zones. Jilin’s Hunchun, Jian and Tumen are the cities along the North Korean border most aggressively pursuing free-trade zones that would allow visa-free access and offer duty-free facilities.

North Korea introduced economic reforms in 2002, but with embargoes imposed by the United States and Japan and Pyongyang’s economic conservatism, the reforms have accomplished little and the economy continues to struggle. In an acknowledgement of those problems, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il in January of reportedly vowed to make 2007 North Korea’s economic development year.

Tang, the Chinese businessman operating in Dandong, noted that his company is about to be appointed by North Korea’s trade authority to assist the operations of some 200 North Korean companies in China. He believes, however, that patience is required when dealing with the communist, reclusive nation.

“Even when North Korea and the US normalize their relationship, more time will be needed for economic reform,” he said, “Chaos would follow if the system is transformed too quickly.”


Comments are closed.