US – DPRK (aka, North Korea): Going Unconventional

Last July, I visited the US on an academic tour and, as a part of my stay, participated in a Tucson, Arizona, conference of the type that would not fit with the expectations of a professional Korea analyst.

The conventional vision common to the majority of Korea watchers is that the relations between Washington and Pyongyang are chronically strained and that calls for tighter sanctions on North Korea are integral to the US foreign policy, reflecting the pursuit of eventual regime change in the country.

The US abdication – in response to what Pyongyang described as a satellite launch marking the April 13, 2012 centennial of Kim Il-sung and Washington saw as a ballistic missile test-firing – from the long-awaited and indeed promising Leap Day deal to provide 240,000 tons of foodstuffs to North Korea, along with  a series of other developments, seemed to reinforce the view.

Against the grim background, the Tucson conference was a showcase for an unconventional even alternative  approach to the lingering US – North Korea dispute.

The forum drew envoys from the US NGOs which, over the past 10-15 years, have been making permanent efforts to lend a hand to North Korea.

The fact that all of them are steadily welcome to the country regardless of its notoriously high security barriers should be accepted as a key credential of the informal movement.

The record of Robert Springs of the Global Resource Services (GRS) President, the man who organized the event, includes 65 visits to North Korea since he started dealing with the country 15 years ago.

Some of the attendees have been to North Korea 10 – 25 times, in many cases reaching out to its remote regions like the Yanggang-do, Chagang-do, North Hamgyeong-do provinces or even roaming around every part of the areas.

Therefore the paper author was really pleased to meet in Tucson persons who happened to be quite knowledgeable in North Korea realities doing not academic but practical deals.

GRS interacts with a number of developing countries along with North Korea. Starting in 1997, the list of GRS priorities concerning the DPRK has been built around the following themes.

1. Facilitation of access to potable water. The corresponding program enabled the access to new water sources discovered using advanced technologies for around 300,000 people, including 100,000 in the Koksan province. A total of 9 new wells have been drilled since 1997 in 4 North Korean provinces in the framework, with the necessary water supply infrastructures being brought online.

2. Food security. The program covers 250,000 people on a daily basis in North Korea’s South Hwanghae-do, North Hwanghae-do, North Hamgyeong-do provinces. In concert with 4 peer NGOs from the US, GRS further has distributed 100,000 tons of foodstuffs in the North Pyongyan-do and Changgang-do provinces, providing crucial assistance to slightly under a million recipients.

3. Global Health. A hundred of medical doctors have been trained in lung surgery in 7 hospitals across five North Korean provinces. Medical equipment supplies to the facilities involved totaled $500,000, making it possible to provide medical services to 500,000 patients annually.

4. Education. On a yearly basis, 10 English language instructors are trained for North Korea at the Pyongyang Foreign Languages University. The program also has a significant cultural exchanges component.

In April, 2012, GRS was instrumental in organizing the biggest on record North Korean tour by Korean war veterans and by 150 artists from the “Sons of Jubal” male chorus and orchestra from Atlanta.

The Korean philharmonic orchestra was expected to give a series of concerts in key US cities as a response gesture, but the US Department of State denied entry visas to North Korean musicians shortly by political consideration (after the DPRK satellite launch unsuccessful attempt).

In result the GRS that booked air flights for 170 musicians suffered considerable financial damage.

It should be noted that GRS, which helps North Korea in cooperation with 4 other NGOs – Christian Friends of Korea (CKF), Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse, and World Vision – released on April 13, 2012 a statement expressing profound disappointment in connection with the US decision to renege on the February 29, 2012 pledge to send 240,000 tons of food to North Korea and urged the US administration to avoid interference between the government’s political agenda and humanitarian objectives.

The purpose of the Tucson conference was to open opportunities for an exchange of views, information, and recommendations on how to legitimately do business in North Korea in the settings defined by the US sanctions and other restrictive measures.

It was held uniformly across the audience that the US pertinent laws which, by the way, are coupled to serous punishments for violators, should be fully observed in dealing with the country.

The participants, importantly, were convinced that the economic cooperation with North Korea can be rewarding and generally has a bright future. Much of the exchange at the forum was centered around a problem which has two interwoven dimensions.

First, the US enthusiasts need to seek out loopholes in their own country’s legislation to be able to connect economically to North Korea. Even though hawks in the US Administration took an impressive array of measures to isolate Pyongyang in a hope to bring about collapse of the current regime, a limited number of route-arounds can be found given the appropriate motivation.

Secondly, there is a task of minimizing the risks of entering the North Korean market which stem from the lack of transparency, corruption, and the local bureaucracy’s tendency to pressure foreign partners out of the joint business. Aware of the problems, the speakers at the forum still sounded fairly optimistic and in many instances praised their North Korean partners for flexibility and creativity.

Koryo, a North Korean restaurant, has for several years enjoyed a reputation of a highlight of the Moscow dining scene. A similar joint called “Pyongyang” recently opened in Amsterdam and quickly established itself among the city’s cuisine attractions.

Companies from Holland report investing luckily in building greenhouses in North Korea, selling Phillips PC monitors, or, as a modest but curious example, installing high-tech revolving doors at hotels.

Clearly, North Korea’s mineral riches must be the main magnet. Gold, copper, zinc, nickel, coal, etc. from the country are already being imported to Holland.

One might ask, how do Western businessmen link up with North Korean partners, considering the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, the US, Japan, and South Korea? They do in many different ways, but most often China is the meeting place. At the moment China is both North Korea’s key trade partner and its connector to the world outside. 

Components made in North Korea but finalized in China are not subject to the sanctions regime. It transpired at the conference that companies involving North Korean partners occur routinely not only in China’s border-zone provinces but also in places like the Middle East or Mongolia.

Around 500 stores in Great Britain offer cashmere sweaters produced by Mongolian factories which vastly employ North Koreans.

Naturally, the Kaesong industrial district is the number one case cited to demonstrate the benefits of cooperating with North Korea. The Koreas may be permanently at odds, but South Korean companies remain keenly interested in the project.

One of the perks of the engagement is that the 55,000 North Korean workers suffice with minimal salaries like $100/month – less than it would take to hire their Vietnamese, Guatemalan, or Chinese colleagues – while being quite professional and responsible enough to guarantee decent output quality.

Some 500 construction workers are currently employed in Dubai.

US and European experts credit North Korea with appreciable accomplishments not only in its traditional sphere of activity such as the textile industry, but also in high tech sectors including medical equipment manufacturing, and software design (security systems, voice recognition, anti-virus toolkits, games – some of them for iPhones and iPads, and animation soft used by French and Italian companies or even Hollywood grands like Walt Disney).

In other words, doing business with North Korea is a challenge but it is worth it. One of the success stories which surfaced at the conference was thrown in by Egypt’s Orascom which shouldered a contract to complete the construction of Pyongyang’s “pyramid” – a 105-floor hotel, and, as an addition to the deal, nabbed North Korea’s entire mobile communications market, already having around a million clients in the country.

The NGOs present at the forum were vocal in protesting against the US campaign of allegations that assistance groups deliberately overstate the numbers of people suffering from malnutrition in North Korea in order to capitalize on the humanitarian aid flowing into the country and that the foodstuffs provided by the US go to the North Korean army or end up on the tables of the country’ leadership rather than reach those who actually starve in the provinces.

Based on such claims, Washington has already cut the respective humanitarian aid.

Armed with factual data, the speakers in Tucson explained that, first, their permanent staff in North Korea scrupulously monitors the delivery of humanitarian aid to the neediest, the destinations being hospitals, preschools, schools, etc. (Samaritan’s Purse alone constantly maintains a team of 18 people in the country), and, secondly, that many of the stories floated by the US media simply could not be true.

For example, the media told that the rice supplied to Pyongyang as humanitarian aid was sold at the city’s marketplaces, but the supposed time when that happened was when no rice went as humanitarian aid to North Korea. The five NGOs are determined to carry on with their humanitarian mission.

The conference left me with a distinct impression that the majority of Americans at the event – only 40% of them were ethnic Koreans, by the way – were committed to the noble cause of providing humanitarian assistance to the needy in North Korea and, moreover, to play a role in building bridges between the country and the US.

Hopefully, this part of the message sent by the forum will resonate, since, while it mostly brought together NGO staff, representatives from the US Department of State and several high-profile Washington-based think tanks.


Alexander Vorontsov is the chief of Korea and Mongolia department at the Institute for Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Science


Strategic Culture Foundation

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