Less than two weeks after being punished with new UN sanctions, North Korea has sent its ceremonial head of state and two top economic officials to Singapore and Indonesia on a trip that appears aimed at drumming up outside investment.
North Korea Parliament Presidium President Kim Yong-nam arrived in Singapore on Friday for his first reported trip overseas since former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death in December last year.
He traveled yesterday to Indonesia with two senior economic officials, according to North Korean state media.
Kim Yong-nam often represents Pyongyang abroad.
The weeklong visit comes on the heels of new UN sanctions imposed on North Korea for launching a long-range rocket last month in defiance of Security Council resolutions banning it from nuclear or ballistic missile activity. Pyongyang insists the launch was an attempt to launch a satellite into space.
Washington suspended an agreement to provide North Korea with food aid and the North could face more punishment if it follows the launch with an atomic test as it did in 2006 and 2009.
Even as it has risked punishment by developing missiles, Pyongyang has also focused, since 2009, on improving its economy by developing light industry, attracting foreign investment and expanding trade.
With ties remaining tense with Seoul, North Korea is looking elsewhere to build economic partnerships.
Singaporean entrepreneurs are already supplying the well-to-do in Pyongyang with everything from Heineken beer to Hello Kitty, and have introduced some locals to hamburgers, fried chicken and Belgian waffles.
North Korea is looking to diversify its trade, import natural resources and export consumer goods with Southeast Asia’s help.
Singapore offers an attractive model for attracting direct foreign investment, while resource-rich Indonesia could give pointers on how to make money from minerals, said Cho Bong-hyun, a research fellow at the IBK Economic Research Institute in Seoul.
Kim Yong-nam visited a food factory and an electronics manufacturer in Singapore on Saturday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.
The North Koreans may also use the trip to Singapore to learn how to develop a successful growth model that does not threaten the political power structure, said Andray Abrahamian, executive director of Choson Exchange, a -Singapore-based nonprofit group that has provided business and legal training for about 200 young North Korean government officials and students.
“Singapore’s development trajectory has been attractive to a number of countries who are interested in maintaining political stability to manage rapid economic growth,” he said.
Trade and investment between North Korea and Southeast Asia have waxed and waned over the past 12 years.
From 2000 to 2006, trade with 11 Southeast Asian countries — including Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand — accounted for between 10 percent and 12 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, but after Singapore and others pledged to enforce UN sanctions, trade with the region dropped to less than 2 percent in 2010, according to the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul.
North Korea has sought to reverse that trend. In 2010, Singapore was North Korea’s sixth-largest trade partner, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency in Seoul.