More foreigners work in North

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More foreigners work in North


Canadian businessman Michael Spavor, who hosts sporting exchanges with North Korea. [MICHAEL SPAVOR]

The eyes of the world were upon Pyongyang when the former NBA player, Dennis Rodman, visited the city with the Harlem Globetrotters, an American exhibition basketball team, on Feb. 26, 2013. The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally threw a welcoming party for the American athletes.

Another visit was made by retired Japanese wrestler-cum-lawmaker Kanji Inoki, more widely known by his ring name, Antonio Inoki, who appeared at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport with his fellow wrestlers in August 2014. An international competition was held in Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium, built by the South’s Hyundai Group in an effort to initiate inter-Korean sports events. The event signaled the return of pro-wrestling to North Korea for the first time in 18 years.

Behind both these events was Michael Spavor, the head of Paektu Cultural Exchange, a “non-profit organization that facilitates cultural exchanges and business with North Korea,” according to its website. The Canadian enterpriser maintains a close connection with Kim, hosting not only sports exchanges, but investment briefings for foreigners, as well.

As inter-Korean relations experience a chill, foreign influence is rapidly squeezing through the gap, pervading cultural, political, economic and social domains, helping define the country’s change under Kim Jong-un’s leadership.


Photographer-cum-enterpriser Aram Pan, who opened a business school in Singapore for North Koreans. [DPRK360]

Tourism is experiencing the most prominent transition. The China-based Young Pioneer Tours and New York-based Uri Tours, both owned by foreigners, offer travel programs in the most isolated country on Earth. Simon Cockerell, general manager at the British-run, Beijing-based Koryo Tours, is a seasoned professional who has made 153 visits to North Korea. He secured the approval for inland travel in 2013, and his agency offers marathon, rail and flight tours in Pyongyang.

On average, 90,000 Chinese and 10,000 Western tourists visit North Korea through Koryo Tours’ program each year. For Pyongyang, Cockerell is a business partner who adds millions of dollars to its foreign exchange reserves each year.

Singaporean photographer Aram Pan is an avid fan of North Korea tours. Pan has been running his Facebook page, DPRK360, since 2013, archiving photos and videos he takes during his travels and creating a visual anthology unavailable elsewhere. His photos now frequently appear in North-related news in South Korea, complete with the ‘DPRK360’ logo.

Seeing the publicity potential of Pan’s work, Pyongyang granted him special freedom of movement within its national borders. Pan then took the opportunity to establish a management school. Six workers in the tourism sector, some of them employees of the Korea International Travel Company (KITC), North Korea’s state-owned travel agency, traveled to Singapore in February to take a course in business management. “My long-term goal is to open a branch in Pyongyang itself,” says Pan.


Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, which offers travel packages to North Korea. [SIMON COCKERELL]

Since the new regime came into power, foreign investors, eager to tap into this fresh market, have become more active than ever. Experts believe this is partly the result of new perspectives held by young elites such as Kim Jong-un and his sister Yo-jong, the highest-ranking female official and a member of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, both of whom previously studied in Switzerland. IBK Economic Research Institute’s Cho Bong-hyun says, “For investors, North Korea is a blue ocean.”

The North’s opportunity-seekers are not limited to business, either. Alejandro Cao de Benos is a Spaniard who uses the title ‘Special Representative’ of the DPRK Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries. He is also the head of the Korean Friendship Association, an organization devoted to propagandizing foreigners for the North Korean government. Cao de Benos was once a member of a communist party in Spain, but he says, “I’ve sought out North Korea because the adulterated ideology and management flaws of my party disappointed me.” He does not shy away from e-mail interviews with South Korean press, flashing all the confidence of a veteran spokesperson.

Other foreigners choose to operate in shadier sectors. In March 2016, Seoul added Leonard Lai Yong Chian, a Singaporean, and Taiwanese Lyou Jen-Yi, to its unilateral sanctions list. Authorities found that the two foreigners were connected to Pyongyang’s weapons development program, aiding its illegal trade and fund management. “These two acted as lobbyists,” a South Korean government official said, “they had roles in North Korea’s illicit arms trade.”

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