Wed, Nov 21, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Pyongyang eager to learn about capitalism

AGENCIES , SEOUL

North Korea began two days of talks with the US in New York on Monday in what Washington officials described as a bid to educate the country about international financial standards of conduct.

The talks are part of a thawing in US-North Korean ties that began when Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear arms programs.

According to a German expert, Pyongyang is keen to learn how capitalism works but fears that efforts to open up the economy could destabilize its system.

"They are not sure about the effects on their own society or their own position," said Bernard Seliger, the Seoul-based representative of a German think tank, the Hans Seidel Foundation.

"They know what happened in Eastern Europe and the consequences for the ruling elite there," he said yesterday.

The foundation runs regular EU-funded workshops in Pyongyang to teach North Korean officials how to do business with the West and establish an export strategy.

Seliger, who returned on Sunday from his latest visit, said North Korean officials are especially interested in the mechanics of foreign trade and in the global economy.

But leaders are moving carefully out of fear of domestic instability.

"They want cooperation, but in a very minimal way," Seliger said.

"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," Seliger said.

Seliger said participants in the foundation's programs -- around 50 people at a time on average -- still bristled at words like "integration" or "reform," but there was extensive discussion on international affairs.

After decades of isolation during which its command economy foundered, North Korea appears to be opening up to the world.

Senior officials have toured Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Russia in recent months and diplomatic relations with several countries have been established or restored.

Seliger, whose foundation began its training programs in 2003, said course members were becoming significantly more relaxed in their interaction with foreigners.

North Korean officials have also been working with the Swiss Foreign Ministry recently to try out a bank credit program for farmers, he said.

"I'm confident that all this contact with the wider world will change people in the long run," Seliger said.

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