Anyone for North Korea?

Posted by Reading Time: 2 minutes

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

BEIJING, Oct. 12 – Several years ago I visited North Korea as part of a business delegation with the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. The mission was led by Dr. Eden Woon, now CEO China for Starbucks, then CEO of the Chamber, and previously – as an American CIA employee – part of the Korea talks on energy which took place in the demilitarized zone. It was, as you can imagine, quite a trip.

All pre-Bush and the “axis of evil” regime, the DPRK showed signs then of a willingness to normalize relations and to experiment with investment incentives such as free trade zones. Meetings were held with the Minister of Commerce, Minister of Finance, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Shortly afterwards I was commissioned by the North Korean MOC to assist with providing them information on the legal system employed by China and Vietnam over the development of free trade zones, and to comment on these – a project for which I was paid by the North Korean consulate in Hong Kong and which lasted six months.

There were hopes at the time that North Korea may open up a little, something which very much bit the dust when President Bush made his somewhat aggressive remarks. Madeleine Albright had even visited to begin discussions over normalizing relations with the U.S., but the Clinton administration just ran out of time. I even made a proposal to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to have the DPRK enlisted as an observer at the Shanghai event attended by Presidents Bush and Putin in 2001. Bush wasn’t keen, but Putin was – guardedly – when I put the issue to them in a Shanghai TV interview. In fact Putin and I had been the only foreign people to have met with Kim Jong-Il in the previous two years.

Ever since then, with political chilliness between the U.S. and North Korea reaching new lows, what little news there is from the DPRK has been mostly poor. But with detente and the exploding of a nuclear device forcing the Americans back the negotiating table, matters of commerce in the DPRK seem to be rising again.

Consequently, I have been somewhat amused to find myself heavily quoted in an interview in this month’s Time magazine (October 1 issue, if you missed it) entitled “Risky Business” and all about hoping that stronger commercial links will push the DPRK to further reform. It’s an interesting subject, albeit a rather minor one for Dezan Shira & Associates as we are heavily committed to China and India rather than North Korea. However it seems my legacy will be with North Korea – it’s one of the primary requests I receive for interviews as there is just so little out there. I guess it just crops up prominently on search engines.

So to allow me to focus on India and China, here are links to the established North Korea consultants that are really focusing on the country:

Roger Barrett, Korea Business Consultants
Nick Bonner, Koryo Tours
Kelvin Chia Partnership

The back issue of China Briefing all about North Korea is here.