North Korea is eager to learn about capitalism but is extremely worried that efforts to open its economy could result in destabilizing its closed society, a German expert who regularly visits the communist country said on Tuesday.
Bernard Seliger, the Seoul-based resident representative of a German think tank, the Hans Seidel Foundation, returned to Seoul on Sunday after a week-long visit to North Korea, his first since last summer. Seliger visits the North about four times a year.
Seliger said his agency regularly runs EU-funded workshops in Pyongyang to teach North Korean officials how to do business with the West and how to build an export strategy. The program draws on average 50 participants.
North Korean officials, he said, are especially interested in principles of foreign trade and the global economy, but are moving cautiously because of concerns over possible domestic instability that might result from sudden changes.
"They want cooperation, but in a very minimal way," Seliger said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency. "They want foreign currency, they want to be able to export their goods, and they want access to the international financial system -- but somehow without having to make any institutional changes."
North Korea's interest in capitalism is not new but is increasing as six-party denuclearization talks continue to progress. In 2000, the Ministry of Foreign Trade established the Centre for the Study of the Capitalist System, and the Pyongyang Business School, set up with Swiss development agency money graduated its first students in 2005.
A North Korean financial delegation, led by Ki Kwang-ho, director of the Finance Ministry, is in New York this week to hold talks with U.S. officials and attend seminars on the international financial system. Despite ongoing discussions, the two countries, which fought against each other in the 1950-53 Korean War, have no
The U.S.-North Korea talks, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, are a follow-up on similar negotiations in Beijing and elsewhere earlier this year that sought to end the North's alleged currency counterfeiting and other illicit financial activities.
One major barrier for North Korea to have increased international access, experts have pointed out, is a lack of its reliable economic data. North Korea has also been under U.N. sanctions becasue of its menacing missile and nuclear tests.
Seliger said North Korean officials have been "willing to listen since the beginning" of his agency's training program in 2003. The program, he said, covers international trade as business, international trade as economics, European business organizations as intermediaries and designing an export strategy.
"There has been an increase in interest in our programs and there has been an undoubted increase in friendliness," Seliger said. "I've also noticed a shift in the focus of questions at workshops we run."
Even though North Koreans are extremely allergic to certain words such as "integration," or "reform," there is clear evidence of extensive discussion on international affairs, he said.
Although North Korea imposed some restrictions on the activities of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in 2005, Seliger said, he is optimistic about future progress.
Seliger also reported freer market activities by ordinary North Koreans.
"Although I've heard about the crackdowns on street hawkers, the atmosphere has still become significantly more relaxed recently" he said. "At a recent dinner at the German embassy, senior figures from the Ministry of Foreign Trade, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education all turned up, which is quite unusual."
"A workshop we held in April called 'designing an export strategy' and run by a visiting German official who has a great deal of experience working with small- and medium-sized European companies also attracted a lot of attention," he said. "I'm confident that all this contact with the wider world will change people in the long run."
North Korean officials have also been working with the Swiss Foreign Ministry recently to test a bank credit program for farmers in the impoverished nation, as their country actively moves to denuclearize through talks with the U.S., South Korea and other regional players.
According to regular foreign visitors to North Korea, the official exchange rate of 188 won to the euro offered at the capital's Koryo Hotel is openly disregarded in a way unthinkable a few years ago, with the euro trading at unofficial rates of over 3,000 won to the euro. North Korea is desperate for foreign currency.