Archive for the ‘Zokwang Trading Company’ Category

More on Kim Jong-il’s court economy

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

According to the Choson Ilbo:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s youngest son and the heir apparent Kim Jong-un is already said to be busy amassing his own slush fund. Despite North Korea’s dire economic difficulties, Kim Jong-il himself is said to have stashed away between US$200-300 million every year to finance his lavish lifestyle and maintain the party elite’s loyalty to him.

With the money, North Korea would be able to import between 400,000 to 600,000 tons of rice, which would be enough to cover half the country’s food shortage of 1 million tons of rice per year.

Key departments within the Workers Party are pressuring agencies under their control to offer “loyalty funds” for the successor, a source familiar with North Korean affairs said. “A separate company has been established under the leadership of Kim Jong-un to secretly amass foreign currency.”

The source said Kim senior uses his slush fund to finance his expensive tastes, build monuments in his own honor and buy gifts for his loyal aides. Faced with increasing difficulties bolstering his slush funds under international sanctions, the Kim is said to have issued an ultimatum to his top officials in February, saying from now on he would judge their loyalty based on the amount they contribute to the fund.

The North is estimated to have imported more than $100 million worth of high-quality liquor, cars and other luxury goods in 2008. And also on the list are pet dogs, which the Kim family are said to adore. Kim buys dozens of German shepherds, Shih Tzus and other breeds from France and Switzerland every year. He also buys dog food, shampoo and other pet products as well as medical equipment for the dogs and has foreign veterinarians check their health.

Before nation founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15 this year, Kim imported around 200 high-end cars from China at a cost of some $5 million. A North Korean source said secret funds are also used to finance nuclear missile development and other state projects Kim Jong-il orders personally.

It is difficult to estimate the total amount of Kim’s slush fund. Experts can only guess that Kim has stashed huge sums of money in Swiss or Luxembourg bank accounts, as did other dictators like former president of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos and ex-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The international press estimates Kim’s slush fund to be worth around $4 billion.

Kim started amassing his slush fund as soon as he was picked as the next leader of North Korea in 1974 to be able to buy the loyalty of top officials. A special department within North Korea’s Workers’ Party called Room 39 which manages Kim’s slush fund by collecting the loyalty funds, exporting local staples including pine mushrooms and operating stores in hotels. A large portion of the $100 million to $200 million North Korea makes each year from exporting weapons, producing counterfeit dollars, smuggling fake cigarettes and selling drugs are also put into Kim’s slush fund.

A North Korean source said a lot of the cash profits generated by the joint tourism business with South Korea end up inside Kim’s personal slush fund too, judging by the fact that Daesong Bank and Zokwang Trading, which do business with the South, are both controlled by Room 39.

Early this year, Kim appointed his high school friend Jon Il-chun to head Room 39. Jon was made the chief of a state development bank North Korea opened recently to lure foreign investment. A South Korean government official said there are suspicions that Kim is diverting some of the profits of the state development bank into his own slush fund as well.

Read the full story here:
How N.Korea’s Ruling Family Swells Its Private Coffers
Choson Ilbo


North Korea’s golden path to security

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner

While the West and Japan have targeted North Korea’s overseas bank accounts to curtail its weapons program, Pyongyang has recently turned to more ingenious ways of maintaining its international businesses through substantial exports of gold, silver and other valuable metals.

Pyongyang has apparently found a willing conduit to global buyers through its many business connections in Thailand, which has recently emerged as the isolated state’s third-largest trading partner after China and South Korea. According to official Thai Customs Department statistics, North Korea shipped 500 kilograms of gold worth 398 million baht (US$11 million) to Thailand last April.

The following month, another 800kg of gold worth 635 million baht landed in Thailand courtesy of North Korea. Also, in June, 10 tons of silver worth 148 million baht was sent from North Korea to Thailand, followed by 12 tons worth 166 million baht last October.

In sum, North Korea exported 1.35 billion baht – or nearly $40 million – worth of precious metals to Thailand last year.

That is a substantial figure for North Korea, a country with an estimated gross domestic product of about $22 billion and whose total exports amounted to just over $1 billion, according to official statistics. Thailand is bound by the international sanctions imposed last October against North Korea by the United Nations in response to Pyongyang’s exploding an atomic bomb.

According to official Thai statistics, the gold and first consignment of silver were shipped to Thailand before the UN sanctions were imposed. But there is nothing illegal in North Korea exporting precious metals, unless, of course, the income from the sale can be tied directly to the country’s controversial weapons programs, which anyway would be extremely hard to prove.

Untapped riches
North Korea’s gold and silver mines remain largely untapped. According to Tse Pui-kwan, a Chinese-American chemist who joined the US Bureau of Mines in 1990, North Korea has significant deposits of copper, gold, graphite, iron, lead, magnesite, tungsten and zinc. When the Cold War ended and North Korea lost large amounts of foreign aid from both the Soviet Union and China, its mining industry fell into disrepair and extraction activities sharply declined.

But with new foreign cooperation, production has resumed, which the recent exports to Thailand clearly demonstrate. North Korea’s main gold mine is in Unsan county in North Pyongan province, about 150 kilometers north of Pyongyang. It was originally opened by a US firm in 1896, when Korea was still an independent and unified kingdom, and was later taken over by a Japanese company when the peninsula became a colony ruled by Tokyo in 1910.

Nearly a century later, consultants from Clough Engineering of Australia in 2001 inspected the same mine under the sponsorship of the United Nations Office for Project Services. They estimated that Unsan held 1,000 tons of gold reserves, which if true would make it one of the world’s major gold mines. Silver is also mined in the same area, while iron ore and magnesite are found in North and South Hamgyong provinces in the northeast.

North Korea’s extraction techniques are sometimes controversial. According to witnesses interviewed by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea for its 2003 report “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps”, there is a gold-mining labor camp near Danchun in South Hamgyong province, where thousands of prisoners are being held and forced to work under abysmal conditions.

In that same report, several witnesses claimed that “some of the mine shafts dated back to the early days of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s. Accessing the veins of minable gold required descending and, later, ascending a wooden staircase 500 meters in length, using gas lanterns for light. Deaths from mining accidents were a daily occurrence, including multiple deaths from the partial collapse of mine shafts.”

The first attempt to modernize North Korea’s gold-mining industry was made by an Italian financier and former Foreign Ministry official, Carlo Baeli, who traveled to the country in the early 1990s and claims to be the first Westerner to do business with Pyongyang since the Korean War. He later wrote a book called Kim Jong-il and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, which was published in Pyongyang in 1990, obviously with official permission as it was printed by the state-owned Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Apart from painting a flattering portrait of the North Korean leader, the book describes Baeli’s first trip to Pyongyang in 1990, of which he wrote, “We were interested in investing in the mining industry, mainly in the extraction of gold and granite.” Baeli later signed a contract for a loan of $118 million to purchase mining equipment, and the goal was to resurrect no fewer than six gold mines across North Korea. The money was to be provided by international banks such as Midland Bank and the Naples International Bank. He also arranged for the mining equipment to be shipped from Italy.

But heavy flooding in the mid-1990s damaged both the equipment and the mines and, according to a 2006 report in Forbes magazine, Baeli today works as an adviser to the Pyongyang government at a tire-recycling plant. The car and truck tires are imported from Japan, get ground into granulate in North Korea, and are sold to China for road resurfacing, car mats and shoe soles. A lucrative business, perhaps, but not quite the golden dream Baeli had when he first arrived in Pyongyang nearly 17 years ago.

Another unusual partner in North Korea’s gold trade may have been the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In August 2001, the right-wing South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo published a story claiming that Marcos in September 1970 had deposited 940 tons of gold bars at a Swiss bank in the name of the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung. The report came from a former Marcos aide, and Munhwa Ilbo carried a copy of the bank-account certificate on its front page. The alleged gold bars were part of what a Japanese army general had looted from Asia during World War II, Munhwa Ilbo claimed.

That report was never independently confirmed, but it nevertheless reflects the mystique and speculation that still surround North Korea’s gold industry – and how little the outside world actually knows about it.

Financial pressures
When the US took action against Banco Delta Asia in Macau in September 2005, labeling it a “primary money-laundering concern” for North Korean funds, very little evidence to substantiate the charges was ever produced. North Korea lost $24 million when the accounts it held with the bank in the name of a front company, Zokwang Trading, were frozen. Zokwang, which had been operating in Macau for decades, also closed its office and relocated to Zhuhai province across the border in China proper.

The action against Banco Delta Asia, a privately owned bank that the Macau government later had to prop up to prevent it from collapsing, was the second move against North Korea’s assets abroad. In a much less publicized action, North Korea’s only bank located in a foreign country – the Golden Star Bank in Vienna – was forced to suspend its operations in June 2004. The Golden Star was 100% owned by the Korea Daesong Bank, a state enterprise headquartered in Pyongyang, and was allowed to set up a branch in the Austrian capital in 1982.

For more than two decades, Austrian police kept a close eye on the bank, but there was no law that forbade the North Koreans from operating a bank in the country. Nevertheless, Austria’s police intelligence department stated in a 1997 report: “This bank [Golden Star] has been mentioned repeatedly in connection with everything from money-laundering and distribution of fake currency notes to involvement in the illegal trade in radioactive material.”

Eventually the international pressure to close the bank became too strong. Sources in Vienna believe the US played an important behind-the-scenes role in finally shuttering Golden Star’s modest office on 12 Kaiserstrasse in the Austrian capital. Until then, Vienna had been North Korea’s center for financial transactions in Europe and the Middle East. Visitors to North Korea have noted that euro coins in circulation in the country – the US dollar is not welcome in Pyongyang – invariably came from Austria. (Euro notes are the same in all European Union countries, but coins designate individual member countries.)

Last October, in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, Japan froze a dollar-denominated account that North Korea’s Tanchon Commercial Bank held with an unnamed Japanese bank. The account had a balance of $1,000 and had not been active for nearly a decade, so the move was mainly symbolic: to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot use banks in Japan for any deposits, big or small.

So it is hardly surprising that North Korea is looking for new ways to manage and maintain its international business interests and for new partners when it is increasingly locked out of most foreign countries. That is where Thailand apparently comes into the picture.

In 2004, trade between Thailand and North Korea for the first time overtook trade between Japan and North Korea. Previously, a string of North Korean-controlled front companies, managed by the Chosen Soren, or the Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, had supplied North Korea with computers, electronic goods and other vital items.

In 2003, North Korea’s total trade volume to Japan was just over $265 million and fell even lower in 2004. At the same time, trade between Thailand and North Korea rose to more than $331 million in 2004. Two-way trade between Thailand and North Korea totaled $328 million in 2005, with Thai exports to North Korea amounting to $207 million and North Korean imports to Thailand totaling $121 million.

During January-November 2006 – the latest statistics available from the Thai Customs Department – trade totaled about $345 million, with Thai exports accounting for $200 million and North Korean imports $145 million. Thai imports of gold and silver have pushed those trade figures higher.

North Korea’s trade with Thailand grew mainly under the previous government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who at one point proposed signing a free-trade agreement between the two countries. In August 2005, Thaksin was formally invited by Kim Jong-il to visit Pyongyang. The visit never materialized, and since Thaksin was ousted last year in a military coup, the future of Thai-North Korean relations is very much in doubt.

But gold and silver are highly fungible and North Korea apparently has lots of the commodities. It appears Kim Jong-il has for now found at least one golden path around the international sanctions imposed against his regime’s nuclear tests.


DPRK “Soprano” State accusation

Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

North Korea, the ‘Sopranos’ state
Asia Times

By Todd Crowell

When US Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow recently called North Korea a “criminal regime”, he was not speaking metaphorically. He was not talking about the North’s abysmal human-rights record, illegal missile sales or efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

No, he was talking about crime – as in counterfeiting US banknotes and cigarette packages, money-laundering and drug-trafficking. These issues have suddenly risen to the forefront of Washington’s agenda and become a major stumbling block in the renewal of the six-party nuclear-disarmament talks.

In September, Washington named Macau’s second-largest bank, Banco Delta Asia, as being “a willing pawn for the North Korean government to engage in corrupt financial activities through Macau”. It said senior bank officials were working with Pyongyang “to accept large deposits of cash, including counterfeit US currency, and agreeing to place that currency into circulation”.

In mid-December, the US Treasury Department issued a formal advisory concerning North Korea’s illegal activities and cautioned US financial institutions to take “reasonable steps to guard against the abuses of their financial services by North Korea, which may be seeking to establish new or to exploit existing account relationships”.

It was reported this month that a delegation of agents from the US Secret Service, which is responsible for counter-counterfeiting as well as protecting the life of the president, will travel to Seoul to meet with South Korean authorities over counterfeiting. Visits of this nature are not usually broadcast in such a public fashion.

Meanwhile, Pyongyang says it won’t return to the six-party talks unless the US lifts restrictions against its financial institutions, including those directed at eight state-owned trading companies that Washington cited in October as being involved in weapons trafficking, especially banned missile technology.

Rumors of North Korean counterfeiting and drug-trafficking have been circulating in Asia for years. Anyone who lived in Hong Kong for many years has heard them from time to time. North Korean companies have a long history of operating in the former Portuguese enclave of Macau, which for decades served the regime as a key window to the outside world.

The Zokwang Trading Co was considered Pyongyang’s de facto consulate in Macau, and the relationship between Zokwang and Banco Delta Asia is no secret. As far back as 1994 the bank found thousands of bogus US$100 bills allegedly deposited by a North Korean employee. The director of the Zokwang Trading Co was held and questioned, but no charges were pressed.

There have been several more recent instances of alleged North Korean counterfeiting.

Last April, the Japanese media reported that a hundred or so fake $100 bills were found among a stack of used currency aboard a North Korean freighter that called at a Japanese port in Tottori prefecture. The captain was reported telling police, “We were asked to bring the money to Japan so that the money could be paid for cars and other items.”

Also in April, a large stash of bogus notes was uncovered in South Korea. The Chosun Ilbo, which reported the story, did not say where or under what circumstances the money was found, though it went into great detail over the quality of the notes and quoted experts as saying it was “highly likely” they came from North Korea.

In August, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported two “sting” operations in the US, colorfully described as Operation Royal Charm and Operation Smoking Dragon. The US government indicted 59 people on charges related to smuggling counterfeit US currency, drugs and cigarettes into the country. The announcement did not specify their origin, but other accounts have speculated that they came from North Korea.

David Asher, head of the US administration’s North Korea Working Group, published a lengthy essay in mid-November in which he described what he called “an extensive criminal network involving North Korean diplomats and officials, Chinese gangsters and other organized crime syndicates, prominent Asian banks, Irish guerrillas and a KGB agent”.

“North Korea is the only government in the world today that can be identified as being actively involved in directing crime as a central part of its national economic strategy and foreign policy … in essence North Korea has become the Sopranos state – a government guided by [Korean] Workers Party leaders, whose actions attitudes and affiliations increasingly resemble those of an organized-crime family more than a normal nation.” The Sopranos is a popular US television series about an organized-crime family.

But why is Washington suddenly pushing decades-old suspicions at this particular time? In September, Christopher Hill, the senior US negotiator at the six-party talks, announced a breakthrough in the negotiations. North Korea had agreed in principle to disarm in exchange for recognition and aid. That same month the Treasury Department issued a warning against dealings with the Macau bank.

In October came the sanctions against the eight North Korean trading companies. Also in October, Vershbow arrived in South Korea, and the new US ambassador quickly developed a reputation for making provocative statements. In November, the six-party talks quickly foundered on Pyongyang’s demands to lift sanctions.

No doubt American officials would solemnly swear they are motivated by a desire to protect the integrity of the US currency and nothing else. But even if the allegations are substantially true, which probably is the case, isn’t this really penny-ante stuff set against the much larger issue of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program?

None of the other participants in the six-party talks has expressed any public concern about Pyongyang’s crimes. That includes Japan, which not only is supposedly the target of counterfeit money but also is on the receiving end of drugs manufactured in North Korea. (Japanese estimate that nearly half of the country’s illegal drug imports originate from there.) Yet it has said nothing.

Last week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry was forced to deny a report printed in the South Korean media that its government had found evidence of North Korean money-laundering in Macau. “China has never indicated that the government had confirmed North Koreans using Macau for money-laundering,” the ministry statement said.

Vershbow has likened North Korea to Nazi Germany as being only the second state-sponsored counterfeiter. He was referring to an operation whereby concentration-camp inmates forged millions of US dollars and British pounds to disperse in England in an effort to ignite inflation there and harm their enemies’ economies.

Yet the highest figure I have seen for the North Korean counterfeiting is the $45 million (over a decade) reported in the Washington Times, which is nothing set against the vast sums of dollars sloshing around Asia. Indeed, I’ve never heard even a whisper that North Korean counterfeits were affecting world currency markets or the value of the dollar in the slightest way.

It’s hard not to believe that the US administration is again listening to more hardline elements after a brief ascendancy of the “realists” in the State Department. Their purpose is to neutralize the talks (how does a nation negotiate with a criminal gang, after all?) and shift the issue away from nuclear disarmament back to the nature of the regime – with the ultimate objective of toppling that regime.

Todd Crowell comments on Asian affairs.


Pyongyang’s Banking Beachhead in Europe

Thursday, February 13th, 2003

Far Eastern Economic Review
Bertil Lintner

One of the few things that Kim Kum Jin and Sun Hui Ri didn’t leave behind when they fled Slovakia in August last year was their collection of bank records. Their invoices came to millions of dollars, but the documents recovered by Slovak police don’t make clear where all the money went. Some answers could probably be found just up the Danube River from Bratislava. Since 1982, the North Koreans have had their own bank in Austria’s capital, Vienna. It’s called the Golden Star Bank–almost the same name as a North Korean company in Beijing that was used by Kim.

According to official Austrian bank documents seen by the REVIEW, the Golden Star Bank is 100% owned by the Korea Daesong Bank, a state enterprise headquartered in Pyongyang. Kim Dok Hong, a top North Korean official who fled to South Korea in 1997, says that both banks come under the jurisdiction of Bureau 39, a shadowy wing of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party controlled by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Western and Asian intelligence services believe it was set up in 1994 to generate hard currency for Kim’s impoverished nation.

For more than two decades, the Austrian police have kept a close eye on the Golden Star Bank, but there is no law that forbids the North Koreans from operating a nonretail financial institution in the country. Nevertheless, Austria’s police intelligence department stated in a 1997 report: “This bank [Golden Star] has been mentioned repeatedly in connection with everything from money laundering and distribution of fake currency notes to involvement in the illegal trade in radioactive material.”

But finding hard evidence of illegal activity is another matter and the bank continues trading in the Austrian capital. While documents left behind in Bratislava by Kim Kum Jin and Sun show dealings with respected banks such as the Bank of China and the National Bank of Egypt, there is no paperwork connecting them directly to the Golden Star Bank. But the Austrian police report’s assertion that “Vienna must be seen as North Korea’s centre for financial transactions in Europe” remains relevant today.

The former Portuguese enclave of Macau–where the North Koreans have had a discreet but solid presence since the mid-1970s–plays a similar role in East Asia, according to Western and Asian intelligence officials. The North Koreans do not have their own bank in the largely autonomous Chinese territory, but they operate through locally owned family banks, the officials believe.

In an October 2000 conference paper, Marcus Noland of the Washington-based Institute for International Economics asserted that money owed by South Korea’s Hyundai company to the North Korean government had gone “into the Macau bank account of ‘Bureau 39’.” The payments were for permission to operate tourist trips to Mt. Kumgang in the North. An official at Hyundai Asan, which organizes the tours, says only that royalties are paid to North Korea through Korea Exchange Bank’s branches in unspecified third countries.

The Congressional Research Service–which provides United States congressmen with background briefings–reported on March 5 last year that “the U.S. military command and the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly believe that North Korea is using for military purposes the large cash payments, over $400 million since 1998, that the Hyundai Corporation has to pay for the right to operate [the] tourist project.”

Noland, an expert on Korean affairs, asserted in his paper that this income was used for “regime maintenance,” or to strengthen the government and its armed forces. Bankers and Western security officials believe this is also the case with money earned from the operations in Europe and the Middle East.
The Macau Connection
The Former Portuguese Colony was a Terrorist Base for Pyongyang

Avenida de Sidonio Pais is not Macau’s busiest street. And the trading company that is located on the fifth floor in a nondescript concrete building doesn’t even have a sign outside. But this is where Zokwang Trading is located–and from where the North Koreans have conducted some of their more nefarious activities in East Asia. The company was set up shortly after the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974, when the old fascist dictatorship was overthrown and the new, left-leaning leaders recognized North Korea.

But Zokwang, which ironically means “morning light” in Korean, has always been more than a trading company. This was the alleged planning base for the 1983 bombing in which North Korean agents killed 17 South Korean officials, including four cabinet ministers, who were visiting the Burmese capital, Rangoon. In 1987, another set of North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jet, killing all 115 people on board. One of those agents, Kim Hyun Hee, now lives in Seoul and describes in her autobiography, The Tears of My Soul, how she was trained in Macau. There, she and other North Korean agents learnt Cantonese so that they would be able to pose as Macau or Hong Kong Chinese when sent on overseas missions. They were also trained to shop in supermarkets, use credit cards and visit discos–amenities that did not exist in their homeland.

In 1994, the head of Zokwang and four other North Koreans were arrested in Macau for depositing millions of dollars worth of counterfeit $100 bills. But nothing came of the investigation and in 1999, more counterfeit dollars were discovered in Macau. The North Koreans were also suspected of peddling drugs and guns through the then Portuguese enclave. Once a week, the North Korean national carrier Air Koryo flew from Bangkok to Pyongyang with a stopover in Macau. The flights, now monthly, carried few passengers–but plenty of cargo.

So Western and Japanese intelligence agencies were apprehensive when North Korea was allowed by the Chinese government to open a new consulate general in Hong Kong on February 16. Air Koryo had applied in April last year for permission to use Hong Kong’s new Chek Lap Kok airport instead. But the airport authorities turned the request down. Air Koryo’s old Tupolev Tu-154 aircraft were just too noisy.

But those who thought Hong Kong would become a new centre for North Korean crime have so far been proven wrong. Perhaps under Chinese pressure, the North Koreans in Hong Kong have become model diplomats: open, approachable and eager to forge links with the local business community. Hong Kong has also eclipsed Macau as the centre for North Korean businesses in East Asia, and the new style may serve as a harbinger for change. No one wants to see another terrorist state emerge in Asia.

Issue cover-dated October 25, 2001


Coming in From the Cold

Thursday, October 25th, 2001

Bertil Lintner
Suh-Kyung Yoon

Pak Ku Po and his companion would not make it in international business circles.  They have no name cards and one of them does not even want to give his name. They claim they know nothing about the place where they are based–“we’re just newcomers here”–but promise to be more forthcoming “the next time we meet.”  Their secretiveness is perhaps understandable as they work for Zokwang Trading, a state-owned North Korean company in Macau, which in the past has been accused of being involved in the distribution of counterfeit money, arms smuggling and terrorist training. North Korea had been accused of state-sponsored terrorism long before Afghanistan decided to give shelter to Osama bin Laden and the seeds of the present conflict in Central Asia were sown.

But now things are supposed to have changed, and Zokwang and other North Korean trading companies–and there are many of them throughout East Asia–claim they are legitimate business operations. Pak, for instance, says that Zokwang is involved mainly in the export of North Korean ginseng to Asian countries, and sweaters and other knitwear to France and Canada. Over the past few years, North Korea has embarked on a vigorous commercial drive across the globe, and, for the first time, it is making serious attempts to attract foreign investment. Is Pyongyang finally turning to capitalism to save the world’s last Stalinist state?

The main question is whether this change in attitude will, in the long run, also change North Korea’s economy and society–as similar initiatives by the Chinese communists in the late 1970s have begun to transform China. Or will more hard currency in the state’s coffers only serve to delay the collapse of one of the world’s most atavistic regimes, thus prolonging the suffering of the North Korean people? And have North Korean businesses overseas really become legitimate? Or are they still peddling fake bank notes, drugs and ballistic-missile technology? This is an important issue going forward because the United States has made it clear it will track down all sources of funding for terrorists in future–and now that other sources are drying up,lesser-known alternatives may come into vogue.

There is little doubt that the sale of ballistic-missile technology in violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime and, more generally, the export of weapons to terrorist organizations and the states that harbour them, is far more lucrative than all of Pyongyang’s legitimate commercial ventures put together. But it is equally true that the international war on terrorism will only make such sales more difficult with every passing day.

Ri To Sop, North Korean consul general at the recently established diplomatic mission in Hong Kong, is firm in his assurances. “Our Dear Leader has told us that this is a new millennium, and that we should not do things in the old way. There will be changes. Just wait and see,” he says. The “Dear Leader,” North Korea’s reclusive supremo, Kim Jong Il, visited China in May this year, where his hosts took him to see the stock exchange in Shanghai. In July, he embarked on a 10-day epic train journey through Siberia to Moscow and St. Petersburg, where he visited sites commemorating the 1917 communist revolution, but also held talks with Russia’s new, born-again capitalist leadership. The trip was hailed by South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung Soo: “[This is] a very positive development because it is an indication that North Korea is willing to open up.”

The main force behind North Korea’s commercial drive is, perhaps not surprisingly, the country’s powerful military. In June, a North Korean defector described the North Korean People’s Army as the country’s biggest “foreign-exchange earner.” From early spring this year, servicemen have been made to engage in a variety of export-oriented projects including mushroom harvesting, gold mining, medicinal-herb collection and crab fishing.

The ruling Korean Workers’ Party is also reported to be operating more than 40 restaurants in six countries as a means of raising hard currency. The first North Korean eatery opened in Austria as early as in March 1986, but in recent years more have followed in China, Russia and Indonesia. According to South Korean intelligence, North Korea will soon open restaurants also in Bulgaria and Australia.

Even more imaginatively, the Dongkong Foreign Trade Corporation in the Chinese city of Dandong, just across the border from North Korea, acquired in September the exclusive right to sell North Korean medicines in the international market–including a brand called Cheongchun No. 1, which is a home-made North Korean version of Viagra.

In Thailand, a North Korean-owned company, Wolmyongsan Progress Joint Venture, has for years been engaged in mining activities near the Burmese border in Kanchanaburi, west of Bangkok, while Kosun Import-Export, which is based in the Thai capital itself, is permitted to trade in rice, rubber, paper, tapioca and clothing.  Kosun is located in a discreet office on the top floor of an eight-storey building in a Bangkok suburb. The company is also involved in property, apparently owning the building and renting out flats and office space.

At first glance, it seems that North Korea’s dive into the world of capitalism is paying off. North Korea does not release any trade or economic figures, but according to data collected by South Korea’s state-run Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, or Kotra, from the North’s main trading partners–China, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong–its external trade in 2000 jumped by 33.1% to $1.96 billion from a year earlier.  It was the second straight year that North Korea saw its trade volume expand and that, too, at a much higher rate than the modest 2.6% increase in 1999.

Kotra is now actively promoting more trade with North Korea. In April this year, the agency published a fact book on how to do business in the Stalinist state, complete with useful phone numbers in Pyongyang and the complete text, in English, of all new laws relating to foreign trade and investment. South Korea’s interest in the development of the impoverished north is understandable. Since South Korean President Kim Dae Jung undertook his historic journey to Pyongyang in June last year, the question of a reunification of the Korean peninsula has become much more urgent–and the South Koreans are painfully aware of the wide income gap between the North and the South.

“Unless we help North Korea develop and strengthen its economy, both countries would collapse if they were reunited,” says a South Korean diplomat on condition of anonymity. “The South would not be able to take care of the North. The gap is just too wide today.” The cost of reunification was first discussed in South Korea shortly after East and West Germany–at a tremendous price–became one country in 1990. According to Marcus Noland, a researcher at the Institute for International Economics, Washington, South Korea would have to invest as much as $3.17 trillion in order to avoid an abrupt influx of people to the South and to upgrade living standards in the North–significantly more than West Germany had to pay to raise living standards in East Germany to an acceptable level.

A closer look at Kotra’s upbeat trade figures for North Korea also reveals a somewhat less rosy picture. In 2000, North Korea exported $556 million worth of machinery and chemical goods–while importing $1.4 billion worth of food, computers and vehicles. The North’s perennial trade deficit is expected to worsen this year as the country has to increase imports of rice, corn and other grains. According to the Bank of Korea, North Korea’s foreign debt totals $12.3 billion and Pyongyang’s credit rating is the lowest in the world.

There is no doubt that it is the dire straits that North Korea has found itself in which have forced its government to resort to commerce, not any real change of mind in the inviolability of the country’s austere socialist system. According to a study by Heather Smith and Yiping Huang of the Australian National University, the present food crisis in North Korea was caused by the disruption in trading ties with former communist allies in the late 1980s. The former Soviet Union ceased providing aid in 1987. More devastatingly, they emphasize, both the former Soviet Union in 1990 and China in 1993 demanded that North Korea pay standard international prices for goods, and that it pay in hard currency rather than through barter trade, as previously had been the case. This affected petroleum imports to the degree that they declined from 506,000 tonnes in 1989 to 30,000 tonnes in 1992.

Subsequently, North Korea embarked on its overseas capitalist ventures. According to a Western diplomat who follows developments in North Korea, the country’s embassies abroad were mobilized to raise badly needed foreign exchange. This, he says, was done partly in the name of the diplomats themselves, or through locally established trading companies, which in reality are offshoots of bigger, Pyongyang-based state trading corporations. “Not only do the embassies have to be self-sufficient, they are also expected to send money back to the government in Pyongyang,” the diplomat says. “How they raise money is immaterial. It can be by legal or illegal means. And it’s often done by abusing diplomatic privileges.”

The sad truth is that the North Koreans are desperate and prepared to do anything to make money, and Bangkok seems to be emerging as a centre for many of their activities. Western intelligence officials based in the Thai capital are aware of the import and sale of luxury cars, which are brought in duty-free by North Korean diplomats. Another way of raising money is to insure a cargo consignment at a disproportionate level, and then report the goods lost. “This is usually done through international insurance markets, and there is little the companies can do but to pay up,” the diplomat says.

And earlier this year, fake $100 notes turned up in Bangkok. The police believed that the North Korean embassy was responsible as some of its diplomats were caught trying to deposit the forgeries in local banks. The North Korean diplomats were warned not to try it again. In a more novel enterprise, the North Koreans in Bangkok were reported to be buying second-hand mobile phones–and sending them in diplomatic pouches to Bangladesh, where they were resold to customers who cannot afford new ones.

And even where businesses tend to be more legitimate, North Korea has managed to attract some rather unusual investors. As early as 1991, the North Koreans established a “free economic and trade zone” in Rajin-Sonbong along the Tumen River near the border with China and Russia. Some 746 square kilometres were set aside for “foreign capitalists”–but there have been very few takers apart from pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans from Japan, who have invested because of patriotic duty rather than any expectations of quick returns. In fact, there is only one major foreign investor in the entire zone: Hong Kong entrepreneur Albert Yeung Sau Shing, who controls the Emperor Group, which has interests in gold, securities, property and entertainment in Hong Kong and China as well as a banking venture in Cambodia.

In October 1999, Yeung opened the $180 million Seaview Casino Hotel in Rajin-Sonbong. Although locals are banned from entering the establishment, the Emperor Group is betting that wealthy Chinese and Russians will come there to gamble. The casino has 52 slot machines and 16 gaming tables offering everything from blackjack and baccarat to roulette. In Hong Kong, Yeung is best remembered for his acquittal at his dramatic trial for criminal intimidation in 1995 when all five witnesses called by the prosecution testified that they did not remember anything. Yeung was accused of having kept a former employee prisoner after threatening to break his leg. Even the victim himself said he could not remember what had happened.

In the same year, Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho also opened a casino in North Korea, but in the capital itself. Ho’s $30 million Casino Pyongyang is located in the Yanggakdo Hotel, where his partner is Macau businessman Wong Sing-wa. His company, the Talented Dragon Investment Firm, in 1990 became Pyongyang’s unofficial consulate in Macau with authority to issue North Korean visas.

Wong, who has interests in several Macau casinos, made headlines in early 1998, when a Lisbon-based weekly newspaper, the Independent, protested over his presence in a delegation from Macau that was being received by the Portuguese president. The paper cited a Macau official as saying that Wong had “no criminal record, but we have registered information that links him to organized crime” in Macau.

With such business partners, it is obvious that the North Koreans have a long way to go before they acquire a better understanding of how capitalism really works. Nor has North Korea, despite its efforts, managed to attract a large number of new investors.  In July this year, a delegation of representatives from 17 Hong Kong companies went to North Korea on a trip initiated by the new consulate in the special administrative region. But though they showed some interest, no commitments were made.

In October, the Singapore Confederation of Industry sent a 25-member delegation to North Korea to look into business opportunities, but little investment is expected from there as well. In recent years, only one Singapore company, Maxgro Holdings, has concluded a joint-venture agreement with North Korea. Maxgro intends to plant 80 million paulownia trees on 20,000 hectares of state-owned land and the project is meant to produce wood for furniture, veneers and musical instruments. But at a value of only $23 million, it is hardly going to turn things around in North Korea.

And, as the fake dollars in circulation in Bangkok show, old habits die hard. In fact, North Korea’s main export item remains ballistic-missile technology. There are especially two North Korean companies that have attracted the attention of Western diplomats: the Changgwang Sinyong Corporation and the Lyongaksan General Trading Company.

In the 1990s, Changgwang was sanctioned by the U.S. government for exporting ballistic-missile technology to Pakistan. In July this year, Changgwang was once again sanctioned by Washington, this time for providing Iran with the same technology. According to Western diplomats, Lyongaksan, which like Changgwang is controlled by the North Korean military, sends people under commercial cover to countries such as Syria and Libya, where they in reality sell weapons systems. According to a report which the Seoul-based Korean Institute for Defence Analyses released in April, North Korea has exported at least 540 missiles to Libya, Iraq and other Middle East countries since 1985.

Libya recently bought 50 Rodong-1 missiles with a range of 1,000 kilometres. Cash-starved North Korea has not hesitated to sell weapons to whoever wants to buy them, including terrorist groups. A video of an attack last year by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on a Sri Lankan navy vessel shows speedboats which appeared to be of North Korean origin. The rebels also appeared to be using a North Korean variant of the Russian 107 millimetre Katysha rocket launcher. And in late 1990, North Korea sold Burma 20 million rounds of 7.62 millimetre rifle ammunition, which intelligence sources say ended up in the hands of the United Wa State Army, a drug-trafficking group which is active in the Burmese sector of the golden triangle.

While the world is focusing on the terrorist threat from Afghanistan, North Korea’s potential for mischief has been almost overlooked. But in testimony on April 17 this year, Deputy CIA Director John E. McLaughlin warned: “North Korea’s challenge to regional and global security is magnified by two . . . factors . . . first the North’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles, and its readiness–and eagerness–to become missile salesman to the world. And second, the economic and humanitarian disaster that has afflicted the people of the North–a catastrophe whose effects will endure for generations, no matter how the Korean situation finally plays out.”

Unlike North Korea’s more mainstream trading companies, its sale of ballistic-missile technology and military hardware raises millions of dollars, which–minus commissions for the North Korean “businessmen” in the field–flow back into Pyongyang’s coffers. “There is no evidence to suggest that this money is used to put food upon the tables of North Korea’s starving people,” quips a Western diplomat.

North Korea, which depends on international aid to feed its people, has imported $340 million worth of military hardware over the past decade, according to South Korean security officials. This may be less in absolute terms than what South Korea spends on its military. But the much-poorer North spends 14.3% of the country’s GDP on its military compared to the 3.1% spent by the South.

So, for the time being, missiles rather than mushrooms make up the backbone of the North Korea’s exports. If some capitalist seeds have been sown during the present drive to shore up the economy, it will take some time for a new business mentality to emerge. Kim Jong Il, it seems, is not yet about to become another Deng Xiaoping.  But in a world ever more concerned with the spread of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, states that are known, or suspected, to possess them will find themselves facing intense scrutiny–if not outright isolation. North Korea, thus, has very good reason to come in from the cold.