Archive for the ‘Forestry’ Category

North Korea’s living exports

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner

It has been known since the early 1990s that North Korea exports manpower to eastern Russian logging sites. But two remarkable incidents over the past years reveal that the foreign-currency-strapped nation also sends laborers to other, somewhat less expected places in the world.

When North Korea won a soccer game over Japan at the Asian Games in the Qatari capital Doha last December, its cheerleaders became so excited that they rushed on to the field and carried the players on their shoulders around the grounds. They could do that, because the North Korean cheerleaders were not, as cheerleaders usually are, young, petite women. They were all male – sturdy, middle-aged construction workers who belonged to the contingents of laborers that the North Korean government is sending to work in the Middle East.

Then, in January, the managing director of an unnamed construction firm was found slashed to death, and one of his workers hanged, in a building in the East Malaysian riverside town of Sibu, on the fringes of the jungles of Sarawak. The businessman was identified as Ri Won-gil, 52, and the worker as Kim Kwong-ryun, 47 – both North Koreans. Their company had “been doing contract work here for years”, the Malaysian Star newspaper reported, although it was not clear what kind of work that was.

As many as 70,000 North Koreans are currently working in various countries, Kim Tae-san, a defector who testified last year on North Korean migrant labor to the European Parliament, told US-financed Radio Free Asia (RFA) this year. Other estimates are considerably lower, but it is evident that labor export is becoming an important source of income for the government in Pyongyang.

Today, North Korean workers are found not only in Russia, Malaysia and Qatar but in Dubai, Mongolia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and possibly also some African countries. Many are dispatched through labor agencies based in China, and most of their salaries end up in the coffers in Pyongyang. As North Korea does not publish any economic statistics, it is not known exactly how much it earns from exporting labor to other countries, but is it believed by North Korea-watchers to be bringing in millions of US dollars annually.

In addition, tens of thousands of North Koreans are working illegally in China, and sending money home to their relatives. This may not directly benefit the Pyongyang regime, but it helps alleviate poverty in the country, and therefore stifle possible social unrest on the level that actually hit the North Korea during the great famine in the early and mid-1990s. On a more organized level, trusted citizens are sent by Pyongyang to work in North Korean-run restaurants not only in China – Beijing and Shanghai – but also in Russia, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. Profits from those enterprises are, naturally, sent to Pyongyang, or to support the activities of North Korean diplomatic missions in those respective countries.

Russia, or the erstwhile Soviet Union, is the oldest destination for North Korean labor, and it probably began when in 1967 Soviet secretary general Leonid Brezhnev and North Korea’s Kim Il-sung reached an agreement to bring manpower to sparsely populated eastern Russia. In September 1996, Amnesty International stated in its “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea/Russian Federation: Pursuit, Intimidation and Abuse of North Korean Refugees and Workers”, one of the earliest reports on the subject: “North Korea brought in the manpower and ran the logging sites, while the Soviet Union provided the natural resources. The profit, reportedly many million dollars over the years, was split between the two countries.” Some of the income was also reportedly used to pay off North Korea’s debt to Russia.

Today, according to Moscow’s Ministry of Economics, 90% of North Korea’s “exports” to Russia consist of workers. An estimated 2,500 North Koreans are to be found in Primorye, or the maritime region adjacent to the Sea of Japan, and almost all of them work at construction sites in Vladivostok and Nakhodka. According to local sources, they sleep in dormitories and eat together under portraits of the late Kim Il-sung and his son, current ruler Kim Jong-il.

Political classes are held every week under strict supervision of members of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. The supervisors, who belong to North Korea’s security police, also collect their salaries from the Russian construction companies that have hired them, and give the workers only food and some pocket money. The bulk of their incomes are sent back to Pyongyang, or used to buy computers and other electronic equipment for North Korea’s small but burgeoning information-technology industry.

Many more North Koreans – the exact figure is not known but is believed to be at least 10,000 – work under similar conditions in logging camps in Khabarovsky krai (region) and Amursky oblast (province). The main camps in Khabarovsky krai are around Chegmodyn and Alonka in the Verkhnebureinsky region, in the wilderness some 680 kilometers north of Khabarovsk. In Amursky oblast, logging camps with North Korean workers are found in the north along the Yuktali, Yukcha and Gilyui rivers, and along the Arkhara River in the southeast. Fenced off with barbed wire, these camps are in extremely remote areas from which it is almost impossible to escape.

Some Russian logging firms – now all privately owned since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its communist system in 1991 – pay in cash, while others reportedly let the North Koreans keep 40% of the timber they fell as payment. Those logs are sent to North Korea by train, and resold to China, or used in North Korea itself, which has almost no forests left and therefore no timber.

According to Lyudmila Erokhina of the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Services, North Korean workers are preferred in the Russian Far East because they work hard and never complain: “They were brought up as law-abiding citizens in a strictly controlled society.” On the other hand, Chinese and Vietnamese guest workers in the Russian Far East are known to have raised demands for better working conditions, and are alleged by many Russians to be engaged in sometimes dubious local businesses, often in black or gray areas.

The good behavior of North Korean workers and their willingness to put up with harsh conditions may have been selling points when in more recent years Pyongyang began sending laborers to the Middle East, where they, according to RFA, mostly perform “low-skilled labor, such as plastering and bricklaying. The North Korean workers receive meager wages, even lower than the Nepalese workers, who have been known to receive the lowest pay of all foreign laborers” in, for instance, Qatar.

“The entire wage received by North Korean workers goes to the North Korean authorities. In order to make some money they can keep, they have to moonlight,” RFA quoted a South Korean resident in Qatar as saying. Thousands of North Korean construction workers are reported to be living under similar conditions in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

In the Czech Republic, hundreds of North Koreans, mostly women, work in factories producing auto parts, or as seamstresses in the garment industry. According to the US State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report, the North Korean regime “provides contract labor for private industry in the Czech Republic. There are allegations that this labor is exploitative, specifically that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] government keeps most of the wages paid to the North Korean workers and that workers’ movement is controlled by DPRK government ‘minders’.”

Since the formerly communist Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004, it has been compelled to investigate the conditions of North Korean workers in country. But according to the US report, the Czech government “to date … has not confirmed that they enjoy freedom of movement away from DPRK government ‘minders’ and are not subject to other coercive practices, such as the collection of a majority of the workers’ salaries by DPRK officials”.

Soon, however, the North Koreans in the Czech Republic may be going home because of international pressure. No new work permits will be issued to them, and those who have permits will not have them renewed, which means that by the end of this year there will be no more North Korean workers in that country. The main problem from the Czech government’s point of view is that, since it joined the EU, tens of thousands of its own workers have left to seek higher wages in western Europe, so foreign labor is badly needed. And who could be better than hard-working, compliant North Koreans?

But if they are no longer wanted in the Czech Republic, there are many other countries willing to hire North Koreans – and, as long as Pyongyang needs foreign currency, the export of labor is also likely to continue.


North Korea Uncovered (Google Earth)

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

DOWNLOAD IT HERE (to your own Google Earth)

Using numerous maps, articles, and interviews I have mapped out North Korea by “industry” (or topic) on Google Earth.  This is the most authoritative map of North Korea that exists publicly today.

Agriculture, aviation, cultural, manufacturing, railroad, energy, politics, sports, military, religion, leisure, national parks…they are all here, and will captivate anyone interested in North Korea for hours.

Naturally, I cannot vouch for the authenticity of many locations since I have not seen or been to them, but great efforts have been made to check for authenticity. In many cases, I have posted sources, though not for all. This is a thorough compilation of lots of material, but I will leave it up to the reader to make up their own minds on the more “controversial” locations.  In time, I hope to expand this further by adding canal and road networks. 

I hope this post will launch a new interest in North Korea. There is still plenty more to learn, and I look forward to hearing about improvements that can be made.


Cause of Barren Mountains: Imperialism-Natural Disaster-Officers

Friday, March 16th, 2007

Daily NK
Han Young Jin

“I ordered trees to be planted. Why are the mountains bare!”

North Korean authorities released a publication on the 6th which summarized that, “We must work hard in forestry in order to make our country beautiful.” This order was made by Kim Jong Il on March 6th 2002 to authorities, the state, military and the elite. 5 years on, authorities now honor and remember the words spoken by the dear leader through a propagandist publication that is published whenever the state deems necessary. The content of this publication was also revealed on the official North Korean website “Uriminzokkiri (amongst our nation).”

The document usually contains the comprehensive ideologies and theories made by Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that need to be passed on to the people.

Following are a few of the decrees found in the publications.

“The nation is experiencing economic difficulty due to coupling natural disasters and imperialists who are trying to isolate us. Trees are growing sporadically in the hills and mountain regions. The mountains are also becoming barren….”

“For the past few years, I have been telling you to work hard afforestation and have encouraged you at every opportunity.”

“However, an forestation has not met the criteria of authorities and is not going according to plan.”

Kim Jong Il’s Analysis

What Kim Jong Il is trying to say is that, “The reason afforestation is not working is because of the people’s reckless slash-and-burn cultivation, as well as the inefficiency of officers unable to block it.”

After the food crisis in ’95, people uprooted vines and trees to suffice their underfed diets, as well as cultivating illegal farms for food. Further, to save themselves from freezing to death, people used trees as firewood.

At the time, people were desolate, battling between life and death. If, however, these people were controlled and prohibited from such actions at the time, defectors say that many of those people would not be alive today.

The destruction of mountains Kim Jong Il argues resulted from cunning imperialists isolating North Korea and the severe natural disasters that continued to plague the country. Yet, there is no evidence to support this claim.

The international community did not enforce pressure to the extent that North Korea could not resolve its problem of firewood. Rather, after the 1994 Geneva Agreement, 50,000 tons of fuel was provided annually. Despite this, Kim Jong Il always redirects the responsibility of lack of energy on the international community and the failure of public welfare on the U.S.

Even evidence to support that natural disasters caused a downfall to the economy has become obscure. It is true that North Korea was hit with drought and flood during 1995~1997, however there has not been any major natural disasters since this time and in 2002 when these decrees were first made. Instead, North Korea should have re-planted much of the mountain trees, though reality is not the case. Rather, Kim Jong Il is blaming the failure of national construction and forestation on mother nature.

Without resolving the food crisis, the mountains will remain bare

Every year, for about a month during the spring (early March~April) and fall (early Nov~Dec) seasons, North Korea enters a time of national construction where the rivers and waterways are cleared and trees planted. This national construction first began in March 1996.

North Korea has aimed to plant a billion trees and has been planting this number of trees every year. Following 10 years of national construction, what is the current state of North Korea?

If national construction had worked as planned, North Korea’s mountains should be dense in trees. However, the cause of North Korea’s mountains being so bare is evidence that the food crisis has not yet been solved.

North Korean authorities ordered citizens that they had the right to eat the tree saplings and cereals as it had been cultivated on the mountains which were illegal grounds. On the other hand, the people are continuously angry as trees are overtaking the land in which their grains should be planted. As a result, whenever a tree has grown a certain height, people uproot the trees and plant a smaller sapling in its place. In the end, though the idea of planting trees has been fulfilled, the mountains are still barren.

Ultimately, it seems that North Korea’s empty mountains will continue until the food issue is resolved.


N. Korea urges implementation of inter-Korean economic accord

Thursday, January 25th, 2007


North Korea has called upon South Korea to implement an earlier agreement to help revive its light industry in return for tapping into the communist nation’s natural resources, a senior unification official said Thursday.

During Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung’s first visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex since he took office in December, Ju Dong-chan, head of the North’s Kaesong development agency “asked the minister to honor the agreement, saying it is not an aid, but only swapping of natural resources and raw materials,” the official said anonymously.

In July 2005, South Korea agreed to provide the North with US$80 million worth of raw materials to help it produce clothing, footwear and soap starting in 2006. In return, the North was to provide the South with minerals such as zinc and magnesite, after the mines are developed with South Korean investments, guaranteed by the Pyongyang government.

But the agreement was never carried out as North Korea abruptly cancelled scheduled tests of two cross-border railways in May 2006. North Korea’s subsequent missile and nuclear weapons tests further clouded hopes to implement the accord.

“Lee agreed in principle to honor the accord, but he held the position it is more important to create a favorable environment for carrying out the agreement,” the official told reporters.

Asked about the North’s denial of reports that it scrapped plans to change its partner for tours of Kaesong, the official said it is purely a matter of business, which does not require the intervention of the government.

Just hours after Lee returned to Seoul from Kaesong, an unidentified spokesman for the Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee (KAPPC) said the North “has no formal agreement with the Hyundai side over the issue of tour of Kaesong.”

Despite its earlier contract with Hyundai Asan, North Korea requested a new deal with Lotte Tours Co. in 2005. However, the South Korean government said the change can happen only when Hyundai Asan voluntarily concedes or pulls out of the business.


North Korea bites a golden bullet

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Korea Times
Donald Kirk

Gold fever is rampaging through the ruling elite of North Korea in the quest for relief from seemingly incurable economic malaise exacerbated by more than a year as a total outcast from the international financial community.

Word from Pyongyang is that trading companies and even individuals are offering payments in gold for imports from across the border with China and also in barter deals for products imported from elsewhere. Gold also has become a form of currency in the internal reward system of payoffs and bribes manipulated by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il to guarantee the loyalty of high-ranking officials.

The rush to sell gold – and, to a lesser extent, silver – has sharply escalated in the 16 months since the US Treasury Department blacklisted Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau, banning all firms doing business with US firms from dealings with that bank. The Treasury Department charged that the BDA had been the principal conduit through which North Korea was shipping counterfeit US$100 “supernotes” printed on a highly sophisticated Swiss-made press in Pyongyang.

It’s well known that the US ban forced the BDA to impose a freeze on North Korean accounts totaling $24 million, but less well known that the bank also stopped purchasing gold produced by North Korea’s historic gold mines, in operation, sporadically, since the late 19th century.

Output of the mines, in mountains about 160 kilometers north of Pyongyang, fell sharply in the late 1990s as a result of flood and famine but, with foreign expertise, has begun to pick up in the past few years.

The impact of the ban, moreover, goes far beyond a single bank in Macau. Although North Korea last spring sold $38 million in gold and silver in Thailand, Pyongyang has been frustrated in reviving its presence on the London bullion market, the world’s largest marketplace for precious metals, amid increased US pressure on the large international banks that are the major buyers of gold.

It was in the aftermath of the ban on the BDA that North Korea’s Chosun Central Bank coughed up the information required by the London Bullion Markets Association (LBMA) for listing as a “good deliverer” of gold. North Korea from 1983 to 1993 had been in the LBMA’s good graces, averaging a ton a month in sales to London buyers that included some of the world’s leading banks, but had slipped off the list after failing to keep up deliveries.

The fact that the Chosun Central Bank again is listed with the LBMA, however, is no guarantee North Korea will be able to sell its gold. The US Treasury ban on dealings with the BDA – as well as sanctions unanimously imposed by the United Nations Security Council after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in October – has spooked buyers in London.

While the LBMA disavows “political criteria” in deciding on eligibility for its “good delivery list”, an LBMA memorandum leaves no doubt how buyers are likely to respond to overtures from a country or company on an international blacklist. None of them, according to Stewart Murray, the LBMA’s chief executive, is willing to take delivery from a company or country that is subject to sanctions.

Or, as the LBMA memorandum puts it, “If, for instance, a bullion custodian considered that it was bound by national or international sanctions that were in force against a particular country, it would have to refuse to accept bars from a refiner in that country.”

The memorandum, moreover, does not mince words when it comes to stating the importance of a “good deliverer” rating. “Given the status of London as the world’s leading center for bullion trading,” it says, “the LBMA List has become the de facto world list of quality refiners and Good Delivery accreditation is a highly sought-after accolade.”

In recent years, “the List” – capitalized in the memo – “has grown primarily due to the listing of refiners in China and Russia” and now totals 77 refiners in 31 countries.

Investors see North Korea as competing on a world stage once sanctions are lifted. “What we’re doing is normal business,” said Roger Barrett, whose firm, Korea Business Consultants, operates in North Korea from headquarters in Beijing. By reviving old minesand developing new ones, he argued, “We’re creating jobs for people, in line with the UN basic charter, in line with economic growth.”

Barrett also believes North Korea may somehow get around the sanctions by finding new markets. “Why would you go to the trouble of going to London?” he asked. “They’re totally entitled to sell their gold.” The fact is, however, that London remains the place to sell gold in significant quantities on a regular basis.

Under the circumstances, Colin McAskill, chairman of Hong Kong’s Koryo Asia Ltd and the guiding light of the Chosun Development and Investment Fund, dedicated to investing in North Korea, accused top US Treasury officials of waging a campaign to make sure the ban on banks dealing with the BDA extends to gold and silver.

McAskill accused US officials, led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Stuart Levey, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, of “using coercion, innuendo and sheer force to intimidate banks from dealing with North Korea”.

Among the victims of the US campaign is one of Koryo Asia’s projects, the Daedong Credit Bank, the only foreign bank based in North Korea, set up primarily to deal with accounts of foreign firms and embassies in Pyongyang. The freeze of North Korean accounts in the BDA, according to McAskill, includes about $7 million funds of Daedong Bank customers.

McAskill avidly supports North Korean demands for the US to lift the ban on the BDA – a move that would not only open up the frozen North Korean accounts but would provide the opening needed for Pyongyang to trade in a wide range of products around the world.

The financial issue is assumed to have ranked at the top of an agenda discussed in meetings in Berlin between the chief US envoy, Christopher Hill, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan. Hill, reporting on the Berlin talks in stop-offs in Seoul, in Tokyo and Beijing, seemed hopeful about “progress” in the next round of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, expected to open in Beijing next month, after the failure of negotiators to get anywhere in the last round before Christmas.

South Korean media said North Korea had agreed to shut down its five-megawatt reactor at its nuclear complex Yongbyon in return for the US promise of massive aid, the crux of the 1994 Geneva Framework Agreement that blew up in 2002 amid US charges of a separate, secret North Korean program for developing warheads from enriched uranium.

There was no assurance, however, that the US is ready to relent on the BDA or that the UN Security Council will consider lifting its own sanction – enough to dissuade banks in London from buying North Korean gold regardless of the US ban on the BDA.

McAskill believes the rationale for the crackdown on the BDA is flawed. He questions the validity of the counterfeit charge and, in any case, says most of the frozen funds are not those of the North Korean government, even though they’re tired up in North Korean accounts. “We want to get a breakthrough on the six-party talks by getting the sanctions eased or lifted entirely,” he said. “We’re at a very delicate stage.”

Whatever happens, McAskill sees North Korea as ripe for investment, with precious metals high on the list of potential exports. “North Korea wants to move back into legitimate business,” he said. “They have a wealth of minerals – gold, silver, zinc, magnesite, copper, uranium, platinum – that needs investment to extract.”


US Geological Survey of DPRK

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Everything you wanted to know about minerals in the DPRK and their export  can be found in these USGS reports (In PDF format):

 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999 | 2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 |


North Korean Loggers in Siberia

Monday, November 13th, 2006

Korea Times:
Andrei Lankov

For the last few decades a visitor to Eastern Siberia would sometimes come across unusual logging camps: fenced off with barbed wire, they sported the telltale portraits of Kim Ilsung and Kim Jong-il. These are North Korean camps: from the late 1960s, North Korean loggers have been working in Russia’s Far East.

In the 1960s the timber shortage was felt both in North Korea and the USSR, but the reasons for the shortages were different.

The Russians had plenty of forest, but lacked labor. When the gulags were emptied after Stalin’s death, few people were willing to up and fell trees in remote corners of Siberia.

The North Koreans had an abundance of cheap labor, but almost no good timber. Thus, the two Communist states had a potential match made in heaven.

In March 1967, when the relations between the two countries began to recover after a serious chill, the logging agreement was signed.

According to the agreement North Korean loggers were allowed to work in designated areas of the Russian Far East.

They were housed in special labor camps, run by the North Korean administration. The timber was to be divided between the two sides: the Russians 60 percent and the North Koreans 40 percent.

At their peak in the mid-1980s the Far East joint logging projects employed over 20,000 North Korean workers. This means that some 0.5 percent of all North Korean able-bodied men labored there. Nowadays, the operations are smaller in scale, with some 8,000 workers employed. An additional 3,000 North Korean workers are employed in other joint projects in Russia (construction industry, vegetable gardening etc.). Since the workers were rotated every three years, it is likely that up to a quarter of a million North Koreans have taken part in this project over the decades.

Politically, this was not as dangerous as it might seem. Even in the 1960s, the Soviet Union had far higher standards of living and was much more liberal and permissive society than the North.

However, the North Korean workers were in the middle of nowhere, and kept under the watchful eyes of their supervisors in the nearly isolated camps. People who broke the rules were arrested and sent back to the North. If it was deemed too difficult or impractical, they could be killed on the spot _ the Siberian forests provided more than enough space for unknown burials.

The Soviets usually turned a blind eye to everything the North Korean administrators did. In the early 1990s the situation changed. During the heyday of perestroika, investigative journalists began to report on the conditions of the North Korean workers.

An expose of the prison maintained by the North Korean security police in one of the logging camps led to a particular public outcry. In those days the Russians felt a nearly universal enthusiasm for democracy and believed that Kim Il-sung’s regime would soon collapse.

There were also publications about the secret opium plantations and illegal harvesting of protected species of plants and animals _ both, frankly, long established pillars of North Korea’s foreign currency earning programs.

On top of that, some loggers used the change in the international situation to defect to the South. In those days, defectors were still rare and thus welcomed in Seoul.

In 1992-1994 it appeared that the entire timber project would be discontinued owing to political considerations. However, the situation changed. The events of 1992-2005 made Russians quite skeptical about democracy, and very suspicious of idealistic crusades of any kind.

Thus, the North Korean camps were left alone to the great relief of the local Russian administrators and businessmen who make good money out of these projects.

For them, the North Koreans were but a source of cheap labor, and they did not care how these “Orientals” were treated by their supervisors.

When the initial Russian enthusiasm for a free press died out, the local politicians learned how to keep journalists away.

By the late 1990s, it also became clear that South Korea was not going to encourage the defection of the loggers. On the contrary, anecdotal evidence indicates that loggers who approach the local South Korean consulate are unceremoniously turned away.

Seoul does not need these impoverished and potentially troublesome brethren in our sunshiny days! Of course, some loggers run away, but largely in order to find better job opportunities in Russia’s black economy.

There are about a thousand such runaways hiding in Russia now, but the authorities tend to ignore their presence.

But what was the incentive for the North Koreans workers? The short answer is: money.

Really good money _ at least, by North Korean standards.


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.


North Korea’s environment crisis

Friday, August 27th, 2004

Alex Kirby

[NKeconWatch: Here is the report-  DPRK_SOE_Report.pdf]

The UN and officials in Pyongyang have agreed the first-ever assessment of the state of the North Korean environment.

The report was written by North Korea’s national co-ordinating council for the environment, together with the UN’s Development and Environment Programmes.

The head of Unep said Pyongyang had shown its readiness to work with the world community to safeguard nature.

The report lists a catalogue of neglect and over-exploitation of resources, and says time is short to put things right.

The report, DPR Korea: State Of The Environment 2003, was produced by officials from 20 government and academic agencies, with training and guidance from the two UN programmes.

Future collaboration

It was compiled as a result of a visit to Pyongyang in 2000 by Unep’s executive director, Dr Klaus Toepfer.

He and Dr Ri Jung Sik, secretary-general of the national co-ordinating council, have now signed a framework agreement on joint activities to improve environmental protection.

The report covers five areas: forests, water, air, land and biodiversity. It says the most urgent priority is the degradation of forest resources.

Forests cover 74% of North Korea, but almost all are on steep slopes. In the last decade the forests have declined in extent and quality.

The report says this is because of timber production, a doubling of firewood consumption, wild fires, insect attacks associated with drought, and conversion of forest to farmland.

On water it says demand is rising “with economic development and the improvement in standards of living”, and calls for urgent investment in domestic sewage and industrial water treatment.

It notes that large quantities of untreated wastewater and sewage are discharged into rivers, and says some diseases related to water use “are surging”.

Air quality, the report says, “is deteriorating, especially in urban and industrial areas”. Energy consumption is expected to double over 30 years, from almost 48m tonnes of oil equivalent in 1990 to 96 million tonnes in 2020.

North Korea’s use of coal is projected to increase five times from 2005 to 2020, underlining, the report says, “the urgent need for clean coal combustion and exhaust gas purification technologies, energy efficiency, and renewable energy alternatives.”

On land use, the report says self-sufficiency in food production has been a national policy aim in North Korea.

Changed priorities

But it continues: “Major crop yields fell by almost two thirds during the 1990s due to land degradation caused by loss of forest, droughts, floods and tidal waves, acidification due to over-use of chemicals, as well as shortages of fertiliser, farm machinery and oil.

“Vulnerable soils require an expansion of restorative policies and practices such as flood protection works, tree planting, terracing and use of organic fertilisers.
“Recognising such issues, [the country] adjusted its legal and administrative framework, designating environmental protection as a priority over all productive practices and identifying it as a prerequisite for sustainable development.”

North Korea is home to several critically endangered species, among them the Amur leopard, the Asiatic black bear and the Siberian tiger.

Squaring the circle

It has signed up to international environmental agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, though the report notes a continuing “contradiction between protection and development”, which it says is being overcome.

In a wider context, the report says: “The conflict between socio-economic progress and a path of truly sustainable development is likely to be further aggravated unless emerging issues can be settled in time.”

It says environmental laws and regulations need to be formulated or upgraded, management mechanisms improved, financial investment encouraged, and research focused on priorities.

Dr Toepfer said North Korea “has shown its willingness to engage with the global community to safeguard its environmental resources, and we must respond so it can meet development goals in a sustainable manner.”


Foreign investors brave North Korea

Tuesday, April 13th, 2004

Lucy Jones

“Got any nuclear weapons for sale?” is the response Briton Roger Barrett usually gets when he tells people at Beijing cocktail parties that he invests in North Korea.
The country’s admission to a nuclear weapons programme and its listing on George W Bush’s “axis of evil” means most people are staying well away.

But Mr Barrett, 49, a former troop commander in the British army who has 10 years experience of doing business in North Korea, recently opened a branch of his consultancy firm, Korea Business Consultants, in Pyongyang.

A self-confessed “business adventurer”, he says there is growing interest in the country after Chairman Kim Jong-il introduced economic reforms in 2002.

It’s like China in the eighties… The market reforms are very evident. It’s an exciting time to join the market.

Robert Barrett, Korea Business Consultants 
He is also the enthusiastic publisher of what must be North Korea’s only business publication – the DPRK Business News Bulletin – which features some of the 250 companies he advises.

“It’s like China in the eighties… The market reforms are very evident. It’s an exciting time to join the market,” he says.

Mr Barrett is not alone.

Even in the middle of a nuclear crisis there are foreign investors in the country, and their numbers are increasing.

They say North Korea is a mineral rich country that needs everything and insist they have to get there first.

They also believe the 2002 economic reform is for real and that the country is gradually moving towards becoming a market economy.


The little data there is on the country’s economy is hardly encouraging, though.

There has been a devastating famine and the UN says malnutrition is still widespread.

There are chronic heating and water shortages, and most North Koreans are paid less than £5 a month.

The country also has an appalling human rights record.

A BBC documentary on the country’s gulags this year contained allegations that chemical experiments are being carried out on political prisoners.

Meanwhile, the US says it is “highly likely” that North Korea is involved in state-sponsored trafficking of heroin.

In the political arena, the second round of six-nation talks aimed at resolving the nuclear crisis ended in Beijing in February without agreement, which means US and Japanese sanctions will remain in place.
‘Communism’ tourism

But the foreign entrepreneurs in North Korea are not put off.

Some are helped by UN employees who have worked in Pyongyang (among the few people to have had contact with the regime there) and many have a track record in China.

Pack a torch, conduct business meetings on the street to avoid big brother listening in and have plenty of “Asian patience” for the endless red-tape, they advise.

An Austrian company is reportedly buying pianos from the North Koreans, a French television station uses North Korean artists to produce cartoons, while a Singapore-based firm is developing forestry and tourism.

The Singaporeans intend to offer “adventure” stays on their North Korean forestry plantations.

Meanwhile, Western tourist agencies are gearing up to offer the last chance to see communism in action, and Fila and Heineken have reportedly entered into sponsorship deals with the North Korean regime.

North Korean labour

A German, Jan Holtermann owner of the computer firm KCC Europe, is putting North Korea online.

He hopes that by being there first he will be able to eventually tap into North Korean computer talent.

The country’s small number of internet users currently dial-up to Chinese providers, a costly process at about £1 a minute.

Mr Holtermann’s customers, who he hopes will number 2,000 by the end of the year, will have unlimited access for £400 a month.

As only a few North Koreans are permitted to have telephones, and as the internet service is costly, Mr Holtermann expects his customers to be government ministries, news agencies and aid organisations.

He has invested £530,000 in the venture, intending to get first pick when North Korean software programmers come onto the market.

“They are very talented,” he says.

“It’s this capacity we want to sell in Europe.”

The parcel delivery company DHL has operated in Pyongyang since 1997, when it was invited there by the government, and now has North Korean light manufacturing, textile and beverage companies on its books.

It sees itself as contributing to the country’s “slow but increasingly visible” economic reform programme.

British consultants

Former bank employee Mr Barrett is convinced North Korea is opening up much quicker than people think.

There are opportunities in banking, minerals, agriculture and telecommunications, he insists.

“There is the odd story of something going wrong,” he says.

“But when you walk around you notice construction going on.

“The people are feeling a change.”

High level contacts

But how to do business with one of the most isolationist regimes on earth?

Contacts are essential, say businessmen.

Though even knowing a North Korean minister is not enough, says Gerald Khor of Singapore-based forestry company Maxgro Holdings.

“You have to go above the ministers to the cabinet. You don’t have to know a member but you need to know people who can influence them,” he says.

“It is very important to get the favour of the dear leader (Kim Jong-il). Because when he says something, it gets done.”

Through a former UN employee, Maxgro got Kim Jong-il’s attention and has invested $2m in forestry, agreeing the state gets 30% of the profits.

“Kim Jong-il is an environmentalist,” Mr Khor says.

“We are confident we’ll get a return.

“We have dwindling supplies and this is high quality wood.”

To locate the forests elsewhere would cost much more, he adds.

Forced to change

Economic reforms introduced by the government in 2002 are seen as the first move away from central planning since the country adopted communism in 1945.

The government has been forced to change in order to survive, especially now it can no longer barter with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, experts say.

“There is no real option not to carry out these reforms,” says UK-based Keith Bennett, who has taken trade missions to Pyongyang.

“But people don’t know where they will lead.

Chinese leaders have impressed on Kim Jong-il that there can be economic reform without fundamental political change.”

Way up on North Korea’s border with Russia and China is the Tumen economic zone, which was established in 1991 with UN help to lure investors.

The project has only had limited success and may indicate the type of problems those investing elsewhere in North Korea may face.

The North Korean section of the zone, Rajin-Songbong, hosts foreign-run hotels, telecommunications and restaurants, but that is about all.

“The North Koreans have sometimes been very co-operative and sometimes not, maybe because of policy change,” says Tsogtsaikhan Gombo, from the UN’s development agency.

“They were also disappointed when they didn’t see the investment.”

Vibrant Chinese economic zones nearby have put up fierce competition.

But even opening the door just slightly to let in capitalism has greatly improved the lives of the 150,000 people living in the zone, says Mr Gombo.

And many foreigners insist that small investments elsewhere in the country may have similar results.