Early last year, we asked a banker in Pyongyang what finance-related workshops we should implement in Pyongyang and she replied that “Exchange-Traded Funds” and “Private Equity” were topics of interest. We immediately considered these impractical and when we asked why she wanted to learn about the topics, she said that she had come across the words in the Financial Times and was “curious.”* While we encourage our participants to be curious, given limited resources, we had to pick issues where we believe we can make an impact that leads to positive outcomes. The way we do this is through a due diligence process where we identify key priorities of partners on the ground, see if this is in line with developments we would like to see, and decide what kind of workshops could help make it happen. This normally takes 3-4 trips and occasionally a pre-workshop (i.e. a workshop where the purpose is more to find out about a policy issue in North Korea and its associated challenges) before we can identify the opportunity. For our most recent workshop, which focused on systems supporting commercial lending, we started the due diligence phase as far back as 2010 through workshops and extended discussions over several trips.
Our North Korean partners have identified aspects of banking knowledge needed for commercial lending, and we agreed that these were key priorities that can be implemented in a 2-3 year time frame. Currently, at least on paper, banks lack a lending system. We believe that for new enterprises to grow and develop, a true lending system needs to be in place to provide capital on a commercial basis. This was the basis for covering risk management and asset-liability matching in our most recent workshop in March 2012, which are systems needed to support commercial lending.
*According to a friend who works for the Financial Times, one of the FT reporters had met the same person in Pyongyang and asked her what she thought about FT. Her reply was that FT focused too much on traditional equity coverage, and not enough on derivatives.