Archive for the ‘Pharmaceuticals’ Category

Foreign NGOs in N.Korea try to counter culture of dependence

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007


 Philippe Agret


SARIWON, North Korea (AFP) – To cope with the pouring rain, the hospital tossed sawdust down the stairway leading to the operating theatre.

Two surgeons washed their hands in a sink, but sometimes they lack soap.

Much like the rest of North Korea, a political pariah and economic black hole, the nation’s hospitals subsist with whatever they can get their hands on, making ends meet with obsolete equipment, short-cut procedures and a smattering of foreign assistance.

Even by the standards of the developing world, the facilities here in Sariwon, a 45-minute drive south of the capital Pyongyang, leave much to be desired.

The medical equipment is largely German or Soviet, reused as long as possible, but spare parts are desperately lacking.

“As we lack sufficient or working equipment, we use local anaesthesia and acupuncture for operations,” said the director of the Sariwon hospital, Dr Choe Chol, a surgeon.

In winter, surgeons operate in rooms where the temperature is lower than five degrees Celsius (41 Fahrenheit).

To improve conditions, the doctors and nurses pitch in themselves to make the hospital work, sometimes even laying down the tiling in the operating theatres.

“We do our best here. There’s no bleach, no soap, no disinfectant. We cleanse with distilled water. It’s the volunteers — the doctors and nurses — who regularly do the cleaning up,” said Veronique Mondon, the North Korea head of the French charity Premiere Urgence.

Premiere Urgence is one of only six foreign non-governmental organisations allowed to work in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Like others NGOs, the group has set a goal of bringing the most basic treatment to the population — but also to encourage North Koreans to develop their own medical infrastructure.

Premiere Urgence’s primary effort has been producing intravenous drips — one of the only medical supplies made in North Korea — for the 12 hospitals where it works.

With 70 to 80 percent of the medicine in North Korea coming from overseas donations, the IV drip — in the form of a packet with a solution of distilled water, glucose and sodium — serves to ease the impact of the lack of supplies.

“These packets can be used for a great number of the medical problems in North Korea such as accidents, malnutrition, dehydration, diarrhea, typhus and hepatitis. They save lives,” said Mondon, a biologist who opened Premiere Urgence’s branch in North Korea in April 2002.

If IV drips are effective, their production is a daily challenge. The packets must be sterilised on site in the most sanitary conditions possible, a process that takes about three and a half hours.

In light of the instability of the electricity and frequent short power cuts, Premiere Urgence has brought in specially made transformers from China.

“The people in the laboratories work during the night to produce the packets so as to save the electricity for the sick people and operations during the day,” Mondon said.

“It was tough at first. It seemed to be an insurmountable task. But now, the North Koreans know that this is needed,” she said.

After the April 2004 disaster in the northern city of Ryongchon, when a cargo train blew up, killing more than 160 people and wounding a thousand others, Premiere Urgence worked round the clock to produce IV drips and distributed 40,000 of them to two hospitals that were treating victims.

Today, the laboratory in Sariwon produces 300 IV drips a day — enough to treat more than 200 patients in this 750-bed hospital.

Across North Korea, Premiere Urgence produces 500,000 packets a year, each one worth around 50 US cents.

The French group has also set up a central laboratory in Pyongyang for quality control over injectable solutions.

North Korea’s communist leadership adheres to the homegrown ideology of “Juche” — self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

But at least hundreds of thousands of people died in a famine in the 1990s and North Korea has since relied heavily on foreign assistance — notably for food — despite continued political defiance, including its test of an atomic device in October.

From the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the few NGOs in North Korea, all encourage local initiatives in an effort to prevent a culture of dependence.

Premiere Urgence plans eventually to hand over the maintenance of equipment and training of technical staff to the North Korean ministry of public health.

As for the ICRC, as well as helping produce 1,200 prosthetic limbs in 2006, it has focused efforts on training local people, including orthopaedic specialists and surgeons.

“North Korea’s pharmaceutical industry will never be able to develop if humanitarian groups flood North Korea with foreign medicine. It will continue to vegetate and manufacturer substandard products if foreigners do not buy local medicine,” said Felix Abt, a Swiss businessman who heads PyongSu Pharma JV. Co Ltd., one of the first foreign joint ventures in North Korea.

Pyongsu has set up a “model” pharmacy in Pyongyang and since September 2004 has run a factory with 30 employees manufacturing paracetamol, the pain relief drug sold under name brands such as Tylenol, along with aspirin and antibiotics.

Abt hopes one day to be able to export medicine from North Korea.

“For now, we are giving the North Koreans fish. It would be better to give them nets so they can catch fish,” Abt said.


North Korea’s prescription for prosperity

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Korea Times
Ting-I Tsai

North Korean drug companies hope that updated versions of traditional medicines promising – among other things – to treat impotence and kidney dysfunction can help cure what ails the isolated Stalinist country’s stagnant economy.

In the hope of earning badly needed hard currency by exploiting the nation’s ancient herbal-medicine traditions, North Korea’s pharmaceutical companies are producing “various traditional health products through [modern] technologies”. The effectiveness of these medicines, however, has not been scientifically proved.

The medication that has drawn the most attention is probably Neoviagra-YR, developed by the Korea Oriental Instant Medicinal Center, which promises to improve a person’s sexual capabilities, ease bone pain, and cure kidney dysfunction and arteriosclerosis.

“I got my cute baby after I took two boxes of YR. This is definitely good medication,” its advertisement quoted Pyongyang resident Kim Ming-ze, 35, as saying.

Another patient who supposedly benefited from the medication was Kim Chong-ze, 45, who said: “I hadn’t had sex for three months. My sexual function normalized after I took four boxes of YR. I can promise that this is the magic medication of the 21st century.” However, the telephone number of the Pyongyang-based company given on the advertisement was wrong.

In Beijing’s Korean neighborhood, a booth at a market sells a box of Neoviagra for US$20.

Boothkeeper Pak Mun-bin emphasized that Neoviagra is far more effective than Pfizer’s Viagra, but failed to explain how it can be used to treat both bone pain and erectile dysfunction.

He added that that the booth sold as many as 700 boxes per month, with South Koreans being major customers.

“North Korea may be a small country. but its herbal medicines are nonetheless better than Chinese ones. At least there are no fake medicines,” Pak said.

If Neoviagra is not quite exotic enough for some customers, North Korea’s Pugang Pharmaceutic Co offers another choice, the “Queen’s Appeal”, which is described as “a volcano of energies and the key to happiness”.

Its official website described it as a herbal dietary elixir formulated from the extracts of wild Epimedium koreanum, which “was used by the kings, the queens and the court ladies in ancient Korea. Makes you wild in sexual life and brings you great energy. Adverse effects: none. Contra-indications: none.”

The North Koreans are also flogging medications that they claim are capable of preserving youth.

Among the “health foods” being introduced, the most widely promoted is “Royal Blood-Fresh”. According to the package, it is a traditional health food “formulated via a high tech from fermented soybeans of the olden royal palace”. The manufacturer, Pugang Pharmaceutic Co, claims it will “make you younger and cleverer. Students will result better in exams.” It recommends taking one to two tablets for prevention, three tablets three times daily for chronic cases, and five to nine tablets three to eight times daily for acute cases. A 160-tablet bottle sells for US$39 in Beijing.

For those worried about bird flu , the North Koreans claim to have a better cure than Tamiflu, the Kumdang-2 Injection, which is “extracted from Kaesong Koryo ginseng cultivated by specific micro-elementary fertilizers involving some ultra-highly purified medicinal rare-earth elements”. An English research team, its introduction claims, concluded that the medication could “prevent and cure the virus-originated epidemic diseases including Bird’s Flu”.

Its official website described its service as a “worldwide daily supply”, with medication distributed to its representative offices in 13 countries around the world, including Cuba, Syria, Japan, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe. A Pugang Han Yong Gon sales representative said any international purchase is deliverable by courier and customers can receive their medication within days.

The Pugang Pharmaceutic Co, founded in 1983, has developed numerous medications by incorporating Korea’s traditional herbs in the production of “high-technology” products, including Aphorodisia 2, a cure for vaginal diseases. The company says it operates nine state-of-the-art pharmaceutical factories in accordance with the industry’s GMP (good manufacturing practices) standard and has averaged an annual turnover of $25 million. All of the medications are legally approved by the local medical authority.

According to Western experts familiar with the nation’s medical services, most of the medications are widely distributed to local pharmacies.

One expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “North Koreans, Chinese, South Koreans, Japanese, etc, are always looking for ‘natural’ ways to reverse aging, cure [or prevent] all diseases with one potion, and to strengthen their sexual potency. And if they can make money while doing it, so much the better,” the expert said. Even if doubts do exist about the efficacy of the so-called “miracle medicines”, the expert noted: “It’s just that they want to believe in them.”

Taiwanese pharmacists and experts in traditional Chinese medicine question the legitimacy of the North Korean medicines.

Gau Churn-shiouh, a professor of the National Taiwan University’s school of pharmacy, noted that these medications “sound more like old-fashioned Chinese medications that could cure everything” that have no sound scientific basis.

Furthermore, experts in Chinese traditional medicine pointed out that all kinds of medications are poisonous, and taking them without diagnosis could lead to illness.

Hung Chin-lieh, also a professor at the National Taiwan University, said that the efficacy of ginseng is relatively limited compared with other herbs, and is not applicable to every single patient.

“The efficacies claimed by the advertisements look more like exaggerations. The main problem is that the ingredients of these medications are so vague. Without adopting the measure of ‘evidence-based medicine’, the North Koreans really should not have promoted the efficacies,” Hung said.


Counterfeiting Cases Point to North Korea

Monday, December 12th, 2005

Los Angeles times
Josh Meyer and Barbara Demick

Pyongyang is accused of being behind a growing effort to print and move rafts of U.S. $100 bills.

The counterfeiting operation began a quarter of a century ago, he recalled, at a government mint built into a mountain in the North Korean capital.

Using equipment from Japan, paper from Hong Kong and ink from France, a team of experts was ordered to make fake U.S. $100 bills, said a former North Korean chemist who said his job was to draw the design.

“The main motive was to make money, but the secondary motive was inspired by anti- Americanism,” said the chemist, now 56 and living in South Korea.

Before long, sheets with 30 bills each were rolling off the printing presses. By 1989, millions of dollars’ worth of high-quality fakes were showing up around the world. U.S. investigators dubbed them “supernotes” because they were virtually indistinguishable from American currency. The flow of forged bills has continued ever since, U.S. officials say, despite a redesign intended to make the cash harder to replicate.

For 15 years, U.S. officials suspected that the North Korean leadership was behind the counterfeiting, but they revealed almost nothing about their investigations into the bogus bills or their efforts to stop them. Now, however, federal authorities are pursuing at least four criminal cases and one civil enforcement action involving supernotes.

U.S. authorities have unsealed hundreds of pages of documents in support of the cases in recent months, including an indictment that directly accuses North Korea of making the counterfeit bills, the first time the U.S. has made such an allegation in a criminal case.

The documents paint a portrait of an extensive criminal network involving North Korean diplomats and officials, Chinese gangsters and other organized crime syndicates, prominent Asian banks, Irish guerrillas and an alleged ex-KGB agent.

The criminal cases and U.S. Treasury enforcement action are part of a concerted campaign to deprive North Korea of as much as $500 million a year from counterfeiting currency and other criminal activities, senior U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials say.

The officials say criminal syndicates in South America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere have also churned out large sums of fake U.S. cash. But North Korea’s is the only government believed to do so, despite international pressure and laws that characterize such activity as an economic casus belli, or act of war, they say.

“It is simply unacceptable for a member of the international community to engage in this type of irresponsible conduct as a matter of state policy, and [North Korea] needs to cease its criminal financial activities,” Daniel Glaser, deputy assistant Treasury secretary for terrorist financing and financial crimes, said in an interview. “Until then, the United States will take the necessary actions to protect the U.S. and international financial systems from this type of misconduct.”

In the fall, the U.S. unsealed an indictment against the head of an Irish Republican Army splinter group alleging that “quantities of the supernote were manufactured in, and under auspices of the government of, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” as North Korea is formally known. North Korea’s government in Pyongyang strenuously denied wrongdoing.

A report by North Korea’s official news service called the charges “a clumsy and base political farce” by a Bush administration intent on toppling the communist government.

David L. Asher, an administration point man on North Korean issues until this summer, said there was overwhelming evidence that Pyongyang had become a brazen “criminal state” reliant on illicit activity, in part to finance its nuclear weapons program.

“This is state-sponsored counterfeiting. I don’t know of any other case like this except the Nazis, and they were doing it in a state of war,” said Asher, who headed the administration’s North Korea Working Group and was the State Department’s senior advisor for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

The administration, he said, has made a strategic decision to press the issue, even if doing so affects delicate six-nation talks aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear arms.

“The administration made a determination early on that irrespective of what happened in diplomacy, this should not be tolerated,” Asher said.

U.S. authorities say the increasingly high-profile campaign against the counterfeiting is proceeding amid information that North Korea is minting more American currency than ever before and smuggling it and other contraband, such as weapons and knockoff pharmaceuticals, directly into the United States. A number of U.S. officials who are knowledgeable about the campaign spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s political sensitivity.

U.S. authorities fear that the communist state has been able to step up its illicit activities by forging more alliances with transnational organized crime syndicates.

Those alliances have made Pyongyang’s suspected nuclear arsenal and other weapons more vulnerable to theft by rogue elements of the North Korean government and sale to nuclear traffickers or terrorists, the U.S. officials said. They worry that the same pipelines used to smuggle fake currency into the United States could be used to traffic in weapons of mass destruction.

An unclassified version of a March report to U.S. lawmakers by the independent research arm of Congress warned that North Korea’s increasing reliance on criminal networks meant it may not be able to curtail its illegal activities even if it wanted to.

“Korean crime-for-profit activity,” analyst Raphael Pen of the Congressional Research Service wrote, “may become a ‘runaway train,’ gaining momentum, but out of control.”

Extending the Network

One of the first places authorities picked up the supernotes’ frail was Ireland, more than 5,000 miles away from North Korea. By the early 1990s, so many supemotes were circulating there that Irish banks stopped exchanging American $100 bills.

The Secret Service soon homed in on Sean Garland, whose exploits with the Irish Republican Army years earlier had made him a local hero.

Garland was chief of staff of the Official Irish Republican Army, or Old IRA, after it split with other IRA factions in 1969 and became the most left-leaning. He also heads its political wing, the Irish Workers’ Party, in Northern Ireland. In that capacity, Garland traveled extensively to see Socialist and Communist party leaders in the Soviet bloc and, authorities contend, North Korea.

According to Garland’s indictment in federal court in Washington this year, which was unsealed this fall, his discussions with North Korean operatives eventually turned from a shared rejection of capitalism to a scheme for him to buy bogus $100 bills, perhaps to destabilize the U.S. dollar by flooding the market with fakes.

The former North Korean chemist, who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal, said that over the years, people from China, Hong Kong, Japan and other countries helped distribute the bills. “There was a lot of cooperation with Ireland,” he said.

In the indictment and in interviews, U.S. authorities said Garland ultimately teamed up with Old IRA members, street crooks and an alleged former member of the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service. They said the men traveled widely to circulate the bills and sell them to customers who would buy suitcases full at wholesale prices.

The indictment accuses Garland and six other men of buying, selling and circulating fake U.S. $100 bills during the l990s. Authorities say they passed up to $28 million worth of bogus currency.

From 1997 to 2000, the group bought, sold and circulated the counterfeit notes in Russia, Belarus, Poland, Denmark, the Czech Republic and Germany, the indictment says. It alleges, in detail, that couriers made frequent ferry trips to Ireland loaded down with real cash to pay Garland for the counterfeits.

Authorities said Garland did much of his business with North Korean suppliers at Pyongyang’s embassies in Moscow and, later, Minsk, Belarus, using his status as a Workers’ Party official as cover.

Things began to unravel in 1999, when Garland’s group allegedly went ahead with a deal to sell $1 million in supernotes to a pair of undercover agents posing as wholesalers.

Authorities in Britain described the counterfeit ring as the largest of its kind in their country’s history. But Garland wasn’t arrested or charged until British authorities, acting on a U.S. warrant, took the 71-year-old into custody Oct. 7 in a hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

U.S. Takes Action

The U.S. quickly moved to extradite Garland. But when he was released for medical treatment, he fled to Ireland, which has no extradition treaty with the U.S.

In a recent statement, Garland insisted that the U.S. charges were baseless and politically motivated. He vowed in an Internet posting to surrender for trial if it were by a jury in Ireland.

No North Korean citizens or front organizations are charged or even identified in the Garland indictment. U.S. authorities would not say whether any of the 10 unnamed and unindicted coconspirators listed in the document were from North Korea.

Charming Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, would not comment on why authorities waited until this year to obtain a grand jury indictment, which alleges criminal acts only through mid-2000. He also would not say whether other suspects from North Korea or elsewhere had been identified or charged under seal.

“I can only say that the case is continuing,” Phillips said.

The chemist, though, said the counterfeit bills were routinely used by North Korean officials.

“Any North Korean official who goes abroad has to change a big note and bring back small, real currency,” he said. “If you come back with real money, you get medals.”

When he decided to flee North Korea in 2000, he crossed into China with thousands of dollars in counterfeit notes, he said. When Chinese police caught him without official papers, they kept $4,000 of the fake cash and let him go.

“Thanks to that money,” he said, “my translator and I were released.”

Besides the Garland case, U.S. officials say three criminal cases the Justice Department is pursuing offer evidence that North Korea is intensiing its efforts to chum out fake U.S. money and conspire with organized crime to smuggle the bills and counterfeit drugs and other products into the United States.

None of those cases explicitly mentions North Korea, but they refer to a foreign country that several U.S. sources say is North Korea.

One case involves supernotes, drug trafficking and three suspected members of a Chinese crime syndicate who were arrested in the Mariana Islands last year.

According to federal court documents and interviews, the Justice Department’s central money- laundering section continues to present evidence in the case to a federal grand jury.

In the two other cases, dubbed Operation Smoking Dragon and Operation Royal Charm, at least 87 people have been arrested or indicted in New Jersey and California on charges of smuggling or conspiring to smuggle at least $6 million in counterfeit cash, knockoff viagra, brand-name cigarettes and weapons into the United States from “Country A” and “Country B.”

Several U.S. officials said those countries were North Korea and China and that the money was printed by the North Korean government.

One of the alleged ringleaders, Co Khanh Tang, told undercover agents in April that he was expecting an especially lucrative product from suppliers in China: “new and better samples” of counterfeit U.S. currency, the indictment against him says.

Stuart Levey, a top Treasury Department official, said North Korea recently began churning out improved copies of U.S. bills.

In October, Levey headed a Treasury delegation to Beijing, Macao and Hong Kong, where he pressed government officials and banking executives for more help in cracking down on North Korean counterfeiters and banks that helped them.

Just before the trip, the Treasury Department designated an Asian financial institution, Macaobased Banco Delta Asia SARL, as a “primary money-laundering concein” under the Patriot Act.

U.S. authorities allege that the bank was a longtime pawn of North Korean front companies, which used it to conduct ‘illegal activities, including distributing counterfeit currency and smuggling counterfeit tobacco products” and aid North Korean drug-trafficking efforts.

The bank denied any intentional wrongdoing and later cut off several dozen clients — including 40

North Korean people and businesses — replaced several managers and allowed a panel named by

Macao’s government to administer its operations.

The U.S. sanctions on the bank, as well as those against several North Korean companies accused

of helping proliferate weapons of mass destruction, have inthriated North Korea. The nation is threatening to boycott disarmament talks unless the United States reverses course. The Smoking Dragon case has raised concerns beyond counterfeiting.

In court documents, prosecutors allege that Tang and another suspect offered undercover FBI agents a catalog of weapons available for purchase from the arsenals of at least two foreign countries, believed to be North Korea and China.

The agents ordered dozens of AK-47 assault rifles and in July 2004 began negotiating a deal for surface-to-air missiles “manufactured by communist countries,” an indictment said.

The indictment added that the agents were told the weapons’ high prices were “necessitated by the need to bribe officials” of at least one of the foreign governments.

Asher, the former State Department official, asserted in a November speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington that absent a worldwide crackdown on North Korean counterfeiting and the government’s other illicit activities, the country would continue to rely on criminal profits to maintain its political isolation and its nuclear program and to withstand pressure to reform.

“Given that periodic exposure of illegal dealings by North Korean officials overseas in the past has not resulted in serious or lasting consequences,” Asher said, “Pyongyang may believe that an open door for global criminality exists.”


N.K. drug company urges aid donors to `buy local`

Wednesday, April 16th, 2003

Korea Herald
Chris Gelkin

“It’s not just about making money, at least not from our perspective as a producer,” declared Felix Abt, president of the Pyongyang-based pharmaceutical company PyongSu Pharma. “The profit margins are very small. It is more about supplying a necessary and quality product at a price people can afford.”

Abt was in Seoul earlier this week meeting with South Korean pharmaceutical companies and aid organizations. On the table was a unique opportunity that would allow them to expand their existing humanitarian work, while at the same time helping to lay a solid foundation for the future of the pharmaceutical sector in North Korea.

“One of the main purposes of my visit here is to meet with the people who donate drugs and medicines to North Korea, or their agents who are based here,” Abt told The Korea Herald. The “frontier-businessman” believes substantial savings could be realized if the donor had the drugs produced locally, in North Korea, rather than purchasing them here in the South or overseas and then having them shipped in.

“We have lower production costs in the North, and of course there would be savings on transportation. All of these cost savings would translate into more money being made available for the actual provision of drugs. And after all, that is the whole point of the exercise, isn`t it?” Abt said, posing a very pertinent question.

For each donated dollar, for each dollar spent, he explained, more medicines would actually reach the people who need them.

“So that, from a humanitarian position at the very least, is a very compelling reason for them to buy from us or have us produce them and then organize the distribution.”

PyongSu has been gaining experience through contract manufacturing for charity organizations, donors and pharmaceutical companies, but Abt says there is plenty of scope to do more.

“We have a total staff of about 30 running one full shift,” Abt said, “and obviously we have capacity to expand that.”

Abt said in addition to helping even more North Korean patients in hospitals and clinics throughout the country, aid organizations could also help raise the quality standards of the local pharmaceutical industry.

“Just shipping aid here is all well and good,” Abt explained, “but it has the danger of creating a culture of dependency. So rather than, for example, just giving them fish, we should give them a fishing rod and teach them how to fish.”

By expanding local production in terms of quantity and variety, Abt said, donors would be helping the people to learn how to stand on their own feet.

“This should be particularly interesting for pharmaceutical companies based here in the South,” he said, “it is absolutely in their long-term interests to see a pharmaceutical sector in the North that is developed and meets international standards which could later become a strong and important partner for South Korean companies.”

PyongSu recently underwent an international inspection and has been approved as a producer that meets the highest standards of pharmaceutical producers worldwide.

The company was launched in the summer of 2004 in a joint venture between the Ministry of Public Health and a group of foreign investors. By the end of 2006, PyongSu was producing a range of medications including painkillers and antibiotics among others.

The company`s mission was to reach and maintain production quality and service standards comparable to any pharmaceutical producer elsewhere in the world.

“We are making a direct contribution to the improvement of the local pharmaceutical sector,” Abt said, “through training, education, and our sharing of knowledge with medical professionals and staff at all levels throughout the DPRK.”

PyongSu pharmacists meet regularly with staff from hospitals and clinics to fully understand their needs, and provide them with up to date information on the latest drugs.

Abt said PyongSu has its finger on the pulse of the medical sector in the DPRK, and is in a unique position to serve humanitarian and aid organizations by producing drugs on their behalf and distributing them, “to those who are in need of them.”


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.