An economic delegation consisting of twelve North Korean officials recently visited the United States at the invitation of Susan Shirk, director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California in San Diego. From March 19 through April 3, the North Koreans toured several U.S. cities on a private visit to learn about capitalism and a market economy. Led by Yeon Il, a director at North Korea’s trade ministry, the delegation included other director-level economic officials, such as Lee Jong-cheol, a director at the metal industry ministry, and Yun Ryong-chan, an agricultural ministry director. According to Cho Bong-hyeon, a researcher at the Industrial Bank of Korea Economic Research Institute, a closer look at the list of North Korean participants provides some clue as to the purpose of their recent US visit.
The economic delegation mostly consists of directors and chiefs of sections at the trade ministry. This government agency handles everything dealing with foreign trade. The group also includes directors from the agricultural and finance ministries, and a head of a finance research center at a North Korean trade bank who plays a key role in overseas financial transactions. This reflects that North Korea is in desperate need of resolving its acute shortage of dollars due to the nation’s worsening economy. Judging from the positions of the North Korean officials who recently visited the U.S., it seems that North Korea had the purpose of drawing foreign investment, solving agricultural problems and addressing its financial difficulties stemming from international sanctions imposed on the communist nation.
During their two-week visit, the North Korean delegates experienced an American-style capitalistic economy and culture. In Los Angeles, the first leg of their US tour, they toured Home Depot, a major American home improvement and construction products retailer, and the Universal Studios theme park in Hollywood. Later on they moved to San Diego to visit high-tech industrial complexes, such as Qualcomm, a major wireless chipmaker, and Life Technologies Corporation, a provider of innovative life science solutions. The visitors also attended lectures on market economies at the University of California. Their itinerary also included New York City, a center of global finance. But it turned out that food companies comprised the lion’s share of their U.S. site visits
As if reflecting the poor food situation in their home country, the North Koreans toured a number of food companies, including the Mountain Meadow Mushroom Farm, a seafood wholesale company, a food processing company and large rice farms in California. I imagine they were visiting places they could benchmark when tackling the North’s dire food situation. They also explored Sempra Energy, apparently with North Korea’s serious energy shortage in mind. They visited Bloomberg and the world’s famous financial firm Citi Group, indicating that they are also interested in the media and financial industries.
Experts note that it is very unusual for North Korea to send a large-scale economic delegation to the U.S. Of course, North Korean economic officials have occasionally visited the U.S. before and, in the past, Pyongyang would invite officials from European institutions. In 2003, for example, a group of North Korean economic officials visited Vietnam under the sponsorship of the Stockholm School of Economics in Sweden. In 2004, the Center for Applied Studies in International Negotiations in Switzerland taught a market economy seminar to North Korean officials. But this is the first time that a large group of North Korean economic officials toured the U.S. Why did the North Koreans tour several industrial facilities in the U.S. amid the strained relations between the two countries?
There are both internal and external factors. Inside the nation, the North Korean economy continues to deteriorate, and the reclusive nation badly needs outside foreign investment and assistance. At present, North Korea cannot resolve its economic difficulties on their own, and it is seeking to remedy the situation by improving relations with the outside world. When it comes to relations with the U.S., in particular, North Korean authorities have engaged in negotiations and behind-the-scenes dialogue frequently, but they haven’t produced any pragmatic results. International sanctions against North Korea, led by the U.S., comprise one of the factors that exacerbate problems in the North Korean economy. For North Korea, an improvement in relations with Washington is essential to resolve its economic problems. The latest U.S. tour by North Korean officials can be explained in this context.
The U.S. government has made no official comments about the North Korean delegation’s U.S. visit. The State Department has described it as a private mission, but some are noting civilian-level exchanges between North Korea and the U.S., which are noticeably expanding. A North Korean science delegation and a taekwondo group are scheduled to visit the U.S. next month, while former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will reportedly make his private trip to North Korea around April 26. Many are wondering whether the brisk private exchanges between the two countries will lead to an improvement in governmental-level relations or signals a shift in Washington’s policy toward North Korea. Here again is Mr. Cho to explain.
It is believed that the U.S. government figured out exactly what North Korea has in mind through the recent tour by the North Korean delegation. The U.S. will take this into consideration when devising its own strategies for future dialogue with the North and for the six-party nuclear talks. With the presidential election scheduled for next year, the U.S. will find it problematic if Korea-related issues are further complicated. In other words, the U.S. needs to address diplomatic concerns involving North Korea, including the nuclear issue, in any form. In this sense, Washington may feel the need to unravel its entangled relations with Pyongyang. It remains to be seen what measures will be taken following the North Korean delegation’s U.S. visit and whether private exchanges between the two countries will continue. Depending on the situation, the private-level exchanges could lead to governmental-level ones sooner or later.
When asked to comment on their 16-day U.S. tour, members of the North Korean delegation said that they came to the U.S. to discuss and discover the possibility of bilateral economic cooperation and that their experience in the U.S. proved useful. We hope the rare visit to the U.S. by the North Korean economic delegates will help facilitate the process of easing the North’s economic difficulties and lead to reform and openness in the isolated country.
[Interview] Coffee Shop Designed to Help Women Defectors There is a take-out coffee shop called “Café Grace” near the Anglican Cathedral in downtown Seoul’s Jeong-dong neighborhood. At first glance, it isn’t so different from any other coffee shop. But in fact, two women defectors from North Korea are working here. The words on the cups offered by this coffee shop read, “The proceeds will be used to help women defectors find jobs and support their lives.” The coffee shop was opened by Girls Friendly Society, a missionary group for women under the Anglican Church of Korea, with the purpose of assisting women defectors in their resettlement in South Korea. Here’s Park Myeong-suk, a general manager in charge of the coffee shop.
For North Korean women, one of the biggest problems is getting jobs. The purpose of this coffee shop is to create jobs for them, help them develop abilities to start a new life here and provide them with vocational training. “Café Grace” doesn’t simply seek to help North Korean defectors by earning money. I would call this place an incubator in which the newcomers become a part of the Girls Friendly Society’s family and are encouraged to get more familiar with South Korean society.
Girls Friendly Society used to assist female migrant workers. The group thought that South Korean society shows tolerance to foreigners but gives North Korean defectors the cold shoulder, making it even harder for them to adjust to a new South Korean environment. So, the group launched the “Well-side Project” aimed at helping women defectors from the North. As the project’s first business, the group opened “Café Grace” in March last year. But Ms. Park says she has experienced an endless string of troubles and unexpected episodes over the past year, since she had no prior experience running a coffee shop. In particular, it was far from easy for both South and North Koreans to overcome the cultural gap and open their minds to one another.
Coffee is one of the most common beverages in South Korea, but many North Korean defectors had never tasted a drop of coffee before. They mistakenly believed that people who drink coffee are sophisticated and even superior to those who do not. They had a sense of inferiority just because they are not familiar with coffee. Some of them even felt angry and depressed. We were embarrassed to discover that, and the North Korean people found it hard to accept the reality. It took almost a year for both of us to admit the cultural difference and change our attitudes. It felt like a very long time.
The North Korean women had a hard time adapting to the unfamiliar environment at first, but they gradually began to open their minds. They were also given an opportunity to experience a new culture while tasting Western food once a month in the process of receiving training to become baristas. While accumulating experience over time, they came to relax and take things a little easier. The coffee shop has yet to escape running a deficit, since it operates on an insufficient budget and its purpose isn’t to make money. While going through many difficulties over the past year, however, the group’s members and the North Korean employees, alike, have grown a lot, which Ms. Park finds very meaningful. She believes that this past experience will prove helpful in carrying out her future plans.
We’re planning on opening one or two more branches of “Café Grace” within this year. It won’t be easy because we have to raise money to finance the project. But I don’t think it’s impossible, since all of our members are pinning high hopes on the plan. On top of that, we’re thinking of starting another business on a trial basis. Many North Korean women are good at needlework and sewing—the skills that were widespread in the 1970s and the 80s in South Korea. By using their skills, we’re considering opening a store this year that mends clothes.
Café Grace has been assisting women defectors in learning about South Korea’s capitalist systems and culture quickly. The coffee shop will surely take root as a meaningful place for many more defectors from North Korea.