September 22, 2014 11:35
North Korea on Saturday held an investor blitz in Dalian, China that surprised participants by allowing potential investors to ask frank questions and receive answers on the spot.
So far North Korean investment drives consisted of officials reading out scripted speeches and taking no questions. The seminar was led by O Wung-gil, who heads the development of a special tourist zone in Wonsan.
Ri Sin-yol, his deputy, gave a power-point presentation at the Shangri-La Hotel in Dalian. He said, "There are around 40 cities near Wonsan and Mt. Kumgang that are less than three hours away by airplane and have more than a million residents." Ri said, "Our goal is to attract one million tourists annually."
Around 200 ethnic Koreans from the U.S. and China attended the blitz.
Asked whether it is possible to invest in hospitals in the tourist zone, O said medical care is provided by the North Korean state, so such investments would not generate profits. When another investor expressed concern that travel around the North is restricted, O said, "We won't stop you from traveling. You just need to apply in advance."
He added that profits can be wired home tax-free from 11 banks in the North being run as joint ventures with foreign financial institutions. But Egyptian telecom Orascom, which had been running mobile phone services in the North, apparently halted additional investments after Pyongyang stopped it from wiring profits home.
O even passed out his name card to South Korean reporters and urged Seoul to invest as well. Asked about South Korean hesitation to invest in North Korea following the confiscation of Hyundai Asan's investments in the scenic Mt. Kumgang resort, O said, "We never confiscated any assets and have no intention of doing so in the future."
He added, "The doors to investment in Wonsan are always open" and urged South Korean businesses to park their money there.
Kim To-jun, the head of the North's General Bureau of Tourism, said in an interview with Japan's Kyodo News on Saturday that Pyongyang hopes to see the number of tourists grow "several hundred times" and added that officials are working on streamlining visa procedures.
However, three U.S. citizens remain in North Korean jails for offenses as trivial as leaving a bible in a hotel room, and the North has yet to apologize for the death of South Korean tourist Park Wang-ja, who was shot by soldiers as she was taking a stroll in Mt. Kumgang in 2008.
One member of a state-run research institute here said, "North Korea is trying to woo foreign investors, but the prospects remain dim until it gains international trust."
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