North Korea’s Market May Open Up, Expert Says  

Taiwanese businesses are among many that are making preparations to enter North Korea if a nuclear deal is successful and the nation opens up its market, an expert on North Korea said at an AmCham Taipei briefing held at the Chamber’s Lincoln Room on July 23.

Before the United States and others imposed strict sanctions on North Korea in recent years, Taiwanese companies were doing business with the country. They were mostly exporting chemicals, textiles, and machinery, while importing minerals, metals, and other raw materials. “Taiwan has good healthy [business] relations with the North,” said Seong-hyon Lee, Director of Unification Strategy Studies at the Sejong Institute, a think tank outside of Seoul. “They want to be ready for when the North Korean market opens up. When it does, they’ll rush in.”

Some critics of the recent U.S.-North Korea talks believe that the negotiations will fall apart eventually like they have many times before. But Lee is optimistic about North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s latest peace offensive, saying Pyongyang will opt for denuclearization if it is more lucrative than going nuclear.

“Kim is 34. He’ll be around for the next 50 years or more. However, he doesn’t want to rule an impoverished nuclear country for the next 50 years,” Lee said.

From left to right: Seong-hyon Lee, Director of Unification Strategy Studies at the Sejong Institute and AmCham Taipei President William Foreman

At last month’s summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim in Singapore, the U.S. leader tempted Kim with images of what North Korea’s economic development could look like if it gave up its nuclear weapons. “They have great beaches,” Trump said to reporters shortly after the summit. “You see that whenever they’re exploding their cannons into the ocean. I said, ‘Boy, look at that view. Wouldn’t that make a great condo?’”

It may be highly unlikely that North Korea will open to such an extent in the near future. In addition, anyone dealing with North Korea at this point risks violating international sanctions and facing ethical questions about doing business with a dictatorship that ignores human rights.

Although Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, President Tsai Ing-wen’s government has complied with the punitive U.N. measures against Pyongyang – a move that has drawn praise from the United States, Taiwan’s most valued friend.

Before the sanctions were tightened, Taiwan imported US$12.2 million in goods from North Korea in 2016, making Taiwan the country’s fourth largest trading partner.

Taiwan will continue to obey the sanctions, said Fang Wu-wan, a spokesperson for Taiwan’s Bureau of Foreign Trade. “We currently stand by this commitment,” she said. “How we proceed in the future depends on the international climate.”

Despite the current restrictions, some of the most prominent multinational companies are waiting for an opportunity to enter East Asia’s last undeveloped market. “It’s a world of business,” Lee said. “Even if North Korea is a bad guy, they’re looking for an opportunity if they can make money.”

The Lincoln Room is made possible by the generosity of a number of sponsoring companies:

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