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     Aug 15, 2012

Chinese company vents venom on North Korea
By Michael Rank

China likes to claim that its relations with North Korea are "as close and lips and teeth" but those teeth are infected with a poisonous abscess so far as one Chinese company is concerned.
In an extraordinary attack, a Chinese mining company has accused the North Koreans of tearing up a multi-million-dollar deal, intimidating its staff, imposing outrageous extra charges and cutting off its power and water, as well as of corruption and demanding prostitutes whenever their North Korean counterparts visited China.

"Xiyang Group's investment in North Korea was a nightmare, and we were taking our lives in our hands when we entered the tiger's


lair," the company says.

Xiyang Group, based in the northeastern province of Liaoning, says it was the biggest single Chinese investor in North Korea, having in 2011 signed a 240 million yuan (US$38 million) deal to form a joint venture iron mine that was to produce 500,000 tonnes of iron powder a year.

A few months after the contract was signed, the North Koreans made a series of extraordinary demands that led to the Chinese walking out in fury and to launching what must surely be the fiercest public attack they have ever made on their supposed close ally. [1]

The company aims much of its invective at a particular North Korean official, who, it says, is "the leader of the criminal gang who deceived Xiyang, this great plotter and fraudster ..." The official, Ri Seong-kyu, was the North Korean side's faren, or legal representative, in the deal and he is blamed for everything that went wrong.

When negotiations began in 2006 the plan was for the Chinese company to take a 75% stake in the venture, but it turned out that North Korean policy stipulated that a foreign firm could own no more than a 70% stake in a natural resources company such as a mine.

Xiyang says Ri, "violating the North Korean national investment law", nevertheless signed a joint venture contract in which the Chinese side took a 75% stake, "forging an investment certification document in order to gain Xiyang's confidence".

He later told the Chinese company that the document was null and void because of the stipulation that the North Korean side must have at least a 30% stake, but Xiyang did not realise his deception until September 2011.

Xiyang says it first became interested in investing in North Korea in 2005 in response to the Chinese government's call for Chinese companies to "venture out" and invest abroad, "but we had heard that North Koreans do not keep to their word, national laws are not strong and it is easy to be cheated, so we were extremely cautious in our investigations."

It also notes the secrecy that pervades business dealings in North Korea, which prevented Xiyang from sending ore samples back to China for testing, but despite all this the company "took the great risk of investing".

"North Korea's system of doing business is [based on] government departments' secrecy in relation to foreigners, and they do not allow foreigners to visit government departments to do business," the online report complains.

It says there were "all kinds of unimaginable serious problems" in reaching an agreement, but after years of negotiations production finally began in April 2011. However, the North Koreans unilaterally annulled the agreement last February, when they "used violent methods" against Xiyang staff, cutting off their water, electricity and communications and smashing the windows of their living quarters.

At 2am on March 3, a group of 20 armed police and security officials led by a North Korean company official woke up the sleeping Chinese and told them the North Korean premier had annulled the deal and they were to leave the country immediately.
Ten senior Xiyang employees, who seem to have been the only ones remaining in North Korea out of over 100 originally sent, were "treated as enemies", put on a bus and deported via the border city of Sinuiju.

The statement includes a highly personal attack on Ri, who, it says, has a huge paunch and is "North Korea's number one fat man", weighing 108 kilograms. "Everybody knows North Korea is suffering grain shortages and ordinary people do not have enough to eat, so North Koreans are quite thin but Ri Seong-kyu's unusual fatness fully reveals what a luxurious life he leads ... When people like Ri Seong-kyu go to China they let down their country and themselves and make all kinds of demands, for money, gifts, food, drink, girls ..."

Xiyang said it had paid over US$800,000 in kickbacks to corrupt North Korean officials, including $80,0000 for a Hummer for Ri in 2008 and $100,000 in 2009 for a construction project in which he was involved in South Hwanghae province. In addition, Ri and his cronies would demand gifts of laptops, cellphones and vast amounts of booze, and to be provided with masseuses.

"Sometimes the Chinese would not provide any girls, so they would get them themselves and put it on their room bill," expecting Xiyang to pay for all their personal expenses, bringing the bill to over 200,000 yuan per person.

This was not all - they would demand a receipt for their expenses that had been paid for by Xiyang, so they could claim the same costs when they returned to North Korea, according to the Xiyang statement.

Xiyang officials, on the other hand, had to pay all their own expenses in North Korea, were only allowed to eat in certain restaurants and were followed 24 hours a day by security officials. Even when Ri invited the president of Xiyang to his home, his host charged $2,000 for the privilege.

The report says the crunch came in September 2011 when the North Koreans made 16 demands that violated the terms of the contract, including a 4-10% sales levy, a one euro (US$0.17) per square metre per year rent charge, a hike in electricity prices and a charge of one euro per cubic metre of sea water consumed.

They also banned the company from releasing waste water, or even clean water, into the sea, which "amounted to the North Koreans forcibly halting production".

The most serious act by the North Koreans was a ban on sales, the document states, which was clearly aimed at ensuring an end to the joint venture. "Ri Seong-kyu claimed all these [regulations] were included in North Korea's national joint venture law, and we could not sell the 30,000 tonnes of iron powder that had been produced. In these circumstances, if Xiyang had carried on investing and manufacturing [in North Korea], we would have been the biggest fools in the world."

Many of Xiyang's complaints will sound all too familiar to anyone who has visited North Korea. The document tells how Xiyang staff were at first banned from buying food in so-called free markets. After much pleading the authorities finally agreed to this, but each person had to be accompanied by two minders and the route had to be approved by the security police.

Although the mine was only 500 meters from the sea, staff were banned from taking strolls along the shore.

Quite why the North Koreans acted with such prejudice against Xiyang isn't clear, but part of the reason may lie in the location of the mine. It is in Ongjin county on the west coast, a highly sensitive area ever since this small peninsula ended up in North Korea after the Korean war even though it lies below the 38th Parallel. (It is also close to the port of Haeju, from where the iron was to have been exported).

The Chinese government may wish to dismiss this as a spat between a little known Chinese company and a single corrupt North Korean official, but it has brought into the open the deep suspicion that exists between the two countries.

The Chinese have long felt unable to trust the North Koreans with their xenophobic, quasi-Maoist personality cult, while the North Koreans are equally suspicious of the emerging superpower on their doorstep eagerly eyeing the smaller country's natural resources.

Change may now be in the air, and the more open leadership style of North Korea's young Kim Jong-eun has sparked speculation of economic reform and a fresh approach to foreign investment in his country, but horror stories such as this may indicate Kim's style may be just that - all style and no substance.

1. See here for Chinese text.

Michael Rank is a London-based journalist and translator who has written extensively on North Korea for Asia Times Online. He graduated in Chinese from Cambridge University in 1972 and is a former Reuters correspondent in Beijing. He visited Rason in North Korea in 2010.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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