British firms go for the hard sell in last Stalinist state

Building bridges: UK business chiefs attempt to drum up business in North Korea as civil unrest flares in the South
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The Independent Online
One of this year's least likely business missions starts tomorrow when members of the British Chamber of Commerce in China set off for North Korea, the world's last Stalinist state.

Representatives of 10 companies will spend five days visiting the capital, Pyongyang, and the Rajin Sonbong special economic zone in search of an elusive animal - a viable business opportunity in a country where most of the population no longer has enough to eat.

Among the companies in the BCCC group are Jardine Fleming, Airbus, ING Bank, the business services arm of Reuters, the lawyers Clifford Chance and a consultancy firm, Batey Burn.

The business mission was organised by the Peking-based Koryo Group, one of the few companies which runs package tours into North Korea. Its British director, Josh Green, said: "The message from North Korea has always been that they are open for business. So now, like any other time, North Korea welcomes foreign business people." There was no difficulty arranging visas for the businessmen, but no British journalist was allowed to accompany the group.

Although not connected, the business delegation comes just one month after the most senior British diplomatic visit to North Korea since 1950. David Coates, the head of the Far Eastern and Pacific Department of the Foreign Office, spent four days in Pyongyang. It was the fourth bilateral meeting between Britain and North Korea since 1995, but the first in Pyongyang.

While North Korea's food and economic crises grow more severe by the month, Pyongyang is trying to maintain links with companies which might be interested in investing in the Rajin Sonbong zone, which borders China. Later this month a delegation of 50 Taiwanese businessmen will visit the country. One westerner who travels to North Korea regularly said that with the third anniversary of Kim Il-sung's death approaching, "there is more flexibility for creative businessmen to look at North Korea". Analysts believe that after this summer's anniversary his son, Kim Jong- il, may finally be confirmed as head of state and head of the party.

Adam Williams, chairman of the BCCC, said: "This is very much an investigative visit. None of us is very clear what opportunities exist in North Korea for British companies. But as China-based businesses, we are in a good position to investigate any potential which is there." Members of the delegation will also visit some development organisations working in Pyongyang. "We have naturally read about the critical food condition and want to find out more," said Mr Williams.

The host for the visit will be the Korean Committee for the Promotion of External Economic Co-operation (CPEEC), which will provide briefings on the trade and investment opportunities in the Rajin Sonbong region and the rest of the country. Banking members of the delegation will talk to North Korean banks, and the team will visit the Sangwon Cement factory, and an exhibition of light industrial goods and minerals.

The focus of the briefings will be the Rajin Sonbong economic development zone in the north of the country, which is part of the wider Tumen River development project. After Pyongyang, the group will fly via Peking to China's border with North Korea and then on to Rajin Sonbong. Two further days will be spent on the Chinese side of the border.