Can a Korean Chinese Save N.Korea's Moribund Economy?

      January 27, 2010 13:46

      North Korea recently announced it wants to create a bank to finance national development projects and appointed a Korean-Chinese businessman named Pak Chol-su to head what is to be called the [North] Korea Taepung International Investment Group, which is to attract foreign capital for the bank. The seven-member board of directors at the investment company include usual suspects like Kim Yang-gon, the director of the Workers' Party's United Front Department, Jang Song-taek, Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law, and other key players.

      But analysts say Pak, a foreigner, is the only one with the ability to attract overseas capital, leading to a sense among South Korean intelligence analysts that Pak was brought in to save what he can of the North Korean economy. It is not the first time. In 2002, the hermit country appointed Chinese-Dutch entrepreneur Yang Bin governor of the Sinuiju Special Administrative Region, though the plan belly-flopped when the Chinese arrested Yang on corruption charges.

      According to North Korean sources, Pak was born in 1959, graduated from Yanbian University and has a master's degree in business and commerce from another university in China. He later developed close ties with high-ranking North Korean officials selling Chinese gasoline in the North. "Since Chinese gasoline is used in cars, it is sold directly to North Korean military officers or key government agencies" since top officials are practically the only ones likely to have one, said one North Korean source. "Pak appears to have gained the confidence of high-ranking officials in the process."

      Korean-Chinese businessman Pak Chol-su speaks at the first board meeting of the Taepung International Investment Group in Pyongyang on Jan. 20. /[North] Korean Central TV

      Pak is believed to have been responsible for setting up a secret meeting between Kim Yang-gon and South Korean Labor Minister Yim Tae-hee in Singapore last October. "Pak used his connections to help North Korea when it was looking for a contact point with the South Korean government after August last year, and it appears this position is his reward," said Cho Bong-Hyun, a North Korea analyst with the Industrial Bank of Korea. There is speculation that Pak may be tasked with luring South Korean capital for investment in North Korea.

      The Taepung International Investment Group was established in China and Hong Kong in September 2006 to lure foreign investment to North Korea. In 2007, Taepung signed an agreement with China's Tangshan Iron and Steel to build a production plant in North Korea and was involved in getting the New York Philharmonic orchestra to perform in Pyongyang in February 2008. The North announced last Wednesday that both Taepung and the bank would be headquartered in Pyongyang.

      It remains to be seen whether Pak will generate the results the regime hopes for. Lee Jo-won, a professor of North Korean studies at Chungang University, said, "Unlike the appointment of Yang Bin, there seems to have been a certain level of consent in terms of the role Pak will play. But without progress in the North Korean nuclear crisis, it'll be virtually impossible for him to attract foreign investment." One senior South Korean government official said, "Last year, North Korea apparently held an investment blitz in the EU and was disappointed to learn that continued economic sanctions due to its nuclear weapons program in effect prevent other countries from making any investment there."

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