North Korea’s unserviced external debt will make it difficult for the country and its partners to implement plans for special economic zones, it has been pointed out. North Korea, which defaulted on its external debt decades ago, needs to recover its sovereign credit rating through repayment or rescheduling, but has not shown any intention of doing so.
“North Korea’s outstanding foreign debt is between $120 billion and $150 billion; if the state cannot repay this, they cannot get access to international financial institutions,” Yoon Deok Ryong, a senior researcher with the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy explained to Daily NK. “The North Korean regime must take steps to restore trust. One of the ways this could be done would be to join the Paris Club of debtors, a structure within which developing nations can borrow money without incurring interest.”
“For a number of years, the Chinese government has been distributing investment guides to Chinese businessmen that outline the risks of investing in North Korea. These guides were previously shared privately, but have now been made public by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce,” Yoon went on. “We can see in this that China, too, is wary of investing in North Korea; it is therefore imperative for the North Korean government to adopt trustworthy measures such as servicing its debts. This is the only way that their development plans can work out.”
“North Korea has been pushing for foreign capital via investment symposiums and talks, as well as the enactment of appropriate trade legislation. But the truly vital concern they should deal with is the building of trust to improve their battered image, one that is often associated with massive outstanding sovereign debt,” a second economic expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed.
All joint ventures require a North Korean business partner. However, many previous JV agreements have seen the North Korean side not service its financial obligations properly. This makes it harder every time Pyongyang makes a new attempt to attract foreign capital.
“During the peak of joint ventures with China in the mid-2000s, there was this hotel in Pyongyang designated solely for Chinese visitors, Kim Seong Ryong, a recent defector who worked on trade issues for a provincial people’s committee in Hwanghae Province, revealed to Daily NK. “Of the 1000 Chinese staying there, most had come to collect their debts. Eventually, however, most could not get their money back and had to close down their businesses.”
Kim went on, “No matter how the Chinese government goes about spurring investment in North Korea, it remains uncertain how much money Chinese businessmen will willingly give in light of the calculations involved. In particular, Chinese traders are fully aware that North Korea does not service its debts properly; thus, the likelihood that Chinese traders will refrain from participating in the development zones is very high.”