Slave to the Blog: The Déjà Vu All Over Again Edition

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that North Korea is not unchanging. But sometimes when I open the paper, I feel like [expletive] Rip Van Winkle. Three tales that seem to bear distinct resemblance to events of the not-too-distant past.

Back in the good old days, the North Koreans used to steal railroad cars from the Chinese. They’d dismantle them and sell them back as scrap. (Pretty gangster move, eh?) Eventually the Chinese rail ministry had enough and said “no more,” prohibiting Chinese trains from crossing into North Korea. One of the more useful things that I have done in this job was to tip off the press during the 2007 famine scare that World Food Program grain was piling up in Dandong because 1,800 wagons had disappeared in North Korea. The publicity contributed to a deal that for every two hoppers the North Koreans returned, they would get one loaded with WFP grain in return.

Sometimes when I open the paper, I feel like [expletive] Rip Van Winkle.

I was reminded of that story the other day when I saw an account of more than 100 South Korean vehicles at the Kaesong Industrial Complex disappearing. The Kaesong project grew out of the diplomacy carried out by Hyundai’s North Korea-born founder, Chung Ju-yung. The irony, of course, is that back in 1998 when Chung Ju-yung donated 1,001 head of cattle to North Korea (to make amends for stealing a cow as a boy before he headed south), the steers were transported on Hyundai trucks. Which disappeared.  

Déjà vu all over again.

Also, back in the paper was Naguib Sawiris. The Orascom honcho (he’s no longer CEO—he gave that title up 1 January due to potential sanctions entanglements) was back in Pyongyang looking for the profits from his cell phone venture that the North Koreans made disappear with the wave of an exchange rate. (Queue up Rihanna.) Somehow I doubt he will be quite as successful in obtaining satisfaction for unpaid debts as in rap videos. In this Pyongyang remake, Kim’s got the guns and if anyone gets suspended upside down on a chain it will be the Egyptian businessman. Indeed, rumor now has it that his Koryolink joint venture will be merged (read “absorbed”) by the government’s recently established rival service. He’ll be lucky if Kim Jong-un refuels his private jet and leaves him with some pocket change.

(Pretty gangster move, eh? But seriously is this how you want to treat your largest foreign investor? What kind of signal does that send?)

If North Korea was in the World Bank maybe he could have applied for insurance through the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA). Or maybe Egypt has an equivalent of our Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to insure his investment bilaterally. One thing we do know is that he won’t be buying any insurance from the Korea National Insurance Corporation (KNIC) in London. According to the Guardian (which has been doing really good North Korea reporting—kudos!), British authorities closed the operation for allegedly funneling money to the North Korean nuclear program.

KNIC has always been sketchy. Back in 2008, a consortium of re-insurers paid out over $58 million to settle a claim of alleged fraud. The re-insurers claimed that the North Koreans staged a 2005 helicopter crash into a warehouse full of donated humanitarian relief supplies. (I had peripheral involvement in the case. Above is a photo of the alleged crash site.) The North Koreans pointed out, correctly, that the contract called for the dispute to be settled in their court, not London. Seems that someone at Munich Re couldn’t tell North and South Korea apart. Oops.

(The Korea Economic Institute had a recent piece titled “Why do 12 percent of Americans like North Korea?” Uh, because 11 percent can’t tell North and South Korea apart?) 

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