Why Invest in North Korea?

Reviewing Jim Rogers’ credentials leaves one impressed. In the introduction to the Chosun Ilbo 5th Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul, he is described as a “contrarian investor” who started the Quantum Group of Funds in partnership with George Soros in 1969, and went on to yield a profit rate of 4,200% in the space of ten years. 

The reason why Rogers is known in South Korea, meanwhile, is an article recently published by Chosun Ilbo in which he referred to North Korea as a very hot investment market.

Much of the information he provided about the region in his Asian Leadership Conference presentation, “Why Invest in North Korea,” was absolutely correct. Asia has the potential to become the world’s next region of prosperity, he said, and China has the potential to become the next world hegemon. A unified Korea would equate to a 75 million-strong labor force and access to abundant natural resources, while the opening of new and strategically vital ports could facilitate rising trade and commerce flows. A trans-Siberian railway linking Seoul with Europe could then become reality. 

However, these accurate assessments of future potential were followed by a problematic misreading of the prevailing situation in the Asia-Pacific region today, one that undermines his “hot investment market” thesis.

According to Rogers, a unified Korea would “run circles” around its former colonizer Japan as a result of the aforementioned large, highly educated workforce. But this begs a question: Just how well-educated are the North Korean people? When one speaks of “well-educated” North Koreans, one is generally referring to a high literacy rate. 

Conversely, in South Korea, positions with global companies are unattainable for students who fail to graduate from a select group of universities, mostly located in Seoul. Even with the assistance of affirmative action policies, it will take a great deal of time for people educated in North Korea to bridge this gap. 

This then links to another apparent hole in Rogers’ argument: How is Korea going to unify? 

Speakers at the conference presented a range of considered, engaging theories as to how the two Koreas might unite. These ranged from slow, incremental and inclusive change as recommended by ASEAN representatives, to arguments over the benefits and drawbacks of the formation of a union, confederation or an entirely different kind of state.

Rogers, however, chose a much vaguer route, proclaiming, “It will unite soon!” He seemed in effect to be saying that North Korea is a great place to invest in at present because unification is just over the horizon.  

There is blame on all sides, but Rogers’ suggestion that Japan and the United States are primarily to blame for the continued division of the peninsula fails to address China’s concern that a unified Korea would unleash a wave of refugees into its border regions, tipping the balance in favor of resident ethnic-Korean minority groups. This concern is evidenced by Beijing’s long-held policy of refusing to recognize North Koreans escaping their country as refugees. China does not desire a unified Korea on its northeastern border. 

Roger’s comparison of Korea with Cold War Germany also raises questions.  Language similarities remain on the Korean peninsula, but these are outweighed by societal differences, fostered throughout the decades of division.  To a casual onlooker, ideological differences between North and South may easily be overcome. Such deep-set indoctrination, however, could prove more difficult to dismantle than practical considerations.

Jim Roger’s presentation did not discuss methods through which future investment in the North could proceed. His focus on the benefits of neoliberal economics would have been better suited to a business conference rather than one focusing on leadership in the Asian region. Alluding to but not delineating how or why the two Koreas will unite, or China’s probable approach to a unified Korea, left more questions than answers.

Views aired in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

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