March 13, 2010 08:21
"I blew $500,000 on Rajin-Sonbong 15 years ago," recalls Roh Jeong-ho, who headed the first South Korean business to set up operations in North Korea's Rajin-Sonbong Economic Special Zone in 1995.
Roh (46) is scathing about North Korea's latest attempts to woo investment to the impoverished Stalinist nation. "It'll be a repeat of the 1990s, which ended in a belly-flop," he said. "Nothing has changed in North Korea."
Roh was once touted by the South Korean media as one of the young leaders in his early 30s who were expected to lead the post-unification era when he exported 44 km of barbed-wire fences to Rajin-Sonbong in 1995. North Korea had asked Roh to supply the fences to isolate the area from ordinary North Koreans. In return, the North offered him the use of 33,000 sq.m of land in the free zone for 50 years.
But there was a catch. The problem was a clause in the contract stipulating that the groundwork on facilities to be built within the leased land must be completed within two years. North Korea continued to make unreasonable demands regarding construction when the area was devoid of crucial infrastructure like roads, running water and electricity, and construction had to be delayed.
At first, the North threatened to scrap the barbed-wire order, complaining that the deal was revealed to South Korean media. Roh managed to calm the North Koreans, but then they started making new demands. They even told Roh to supply equipment to guards who were posted along the fence, including tazers and high-voltage current generators.
"North Korean government workers operate under a bizarre, performance-based system," Roh said. "Their performance is gauged based on how much they are able to extort from South Korean businesses."
Roh said his North Korean business partners often changed as they were either promoted or demoted based on their performance, requiring negotiations to start from scratch every time. After two years passed without Roh being able to complete groundwork on his allotted land, the right was revoked. He ended up wasting close to US$1 million, including expenses on top of the $500,000 cost of producing the barbed wire.
"If you're not careful, you could end up losing everything," he warned. He added that the business prospects are riddled with traps. "We tend to believe that the North Koreans would be accommodating since we are 'compatriots,' but that's a big mistake," Roh said. "North Korea extends its invitation to South Korean businesses in order to use them as window dressing to attract Chinese and Russian investors."
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