Investing in North Korea: Money pit or golden opportunity?

PYONGYANG • US President Donald Trump dangled the carrot of foreign investment in front of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their nuclear summit, but analysts say few will want to put money into one of the highest-risk business environments in the world.

The US President showed Mr Kim a movie of bright lights, high-speed trains and soaring tower blocks - pitching a future that could be possible if Pyongyang gives up its weapons.

Optimists say that with mineral wealth, cheap labour and a helpful geographical location, the North has huge potential.

But the history of overseas firms that have tried to set up operations in the isolated, impoverished country is a long and sorry one. Rules that can change on a whim, bills that are never paid, and the threat of expropriation hang over foreigners who step into the wildest of wild east investment destinations.

For now, dozens of restrictions apply under the various sanction regimes imposed on the North over its nuclear ambitions.

Joint ventures are banned by the United Nations Security Council, the European Union blocks financial transfers of more than €5,000 (S$7,850), and US regulations mean international banks are loath to enable transactions of any kind - so much so that even humanitarian organisations struggle to fund their activities.

And even if these are lifted, there are major challenges to working in the North. Infrastructure is poor, and analysts say corruption is widespread. Crucially, says a diplomatic source in Pyongyang, "legal guarantees for business are very weak".

Construction giant LafargeHolcim last year disposed of its stake in a North Korean cement plant, nursing significant losses.

"Governance is weak, information is lacking and there are huge cultural gaps with local partners," says Mr Geoffrey See, founder of Singapore-based Choson Exchange, a non-profit group that trains entrepreneurs and economic policymakers in the North. The most successful foreign firms in the North, he adds, focus on trading activities to avoid having assets that are vulnerable to seizure.

Foreign firms are beginning to make inquiries in response, says Mr Michael Spavor of Paektu Consulting, who has been working with the country for 20 years.

"Our organisation has had much interest recently from investors interested in market research as well as face-to-face matchmaking with potential DPRK ministries and future partners," he adds, using the official acronym for North Korea.

Even if sanctions are lifted, Mr Gareth Leather, senior Asia economist for Capital Economics, says "it's basically a police state and you have a long way to go to North Korea becoming a normal economy". "It's going to take a very brave investor to venture in again."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'Investing in North Korea: Money pit or golden opportunity?'. Print Edition | Subscribe