Update on North Korea’s Economic Strategy – JVIC and Taepung Merger is a Positive Step Forward

Last year, we met with both the Taepung Group and the Joint Venture and Investment Commission (JVIC) to discuss potential training programs in economic and investment policy. We ended up working with the JVIC on some training programs as most of their staff came across as being professional, earnest, and well-intentioned. They were focused on critical issues such as reshaping investment laws and strengthening the rule of law in general. Many of them were aware of key challenges businesses faced in North Korea. Many of the staff also lived abroad and brought with them creativity and pragmatism in looking at problems and in devising solutions. During programs and meetings, workshop leaders constantly reinforced the themes of establishing credible investment laws, tackling corruption, providing more information on the business environment and reducing expropriation risks. We emphasized the need for a consolidation of investment-seeking efforts as we were worried that having multiple investment agencies would lead to investments being funneled into different patronage networks instead of being redirected to broader development objectives. There was also the risk that different agencies would offer inconsistent terms to investors, leading to an unfair playing field.

While we heard over the course of last year that a JVIC-Taepung major was in the works, we never knew when this might take place. Hence, we are gladdened to read that Taepung is going to be merged into JVIC (which we have yet to confirm). We believe that this is a positive step forward for North Korea’s economic development, as they will need an effective agency to support foreign investors, shape the domestic business environment, and help foreign investors navigate the domestic business environment. Perhaps a next key step would include JVIC formally taking on some of the roles of the State Planning Commission, as foreign investment is critical if North Korea is to revive its moribund state enterprises and overall economy.

What is the Taepung Group?

As of April 2011, executives at Taepung describe a business model more reminiscent of a holding company rather than a government institution. Investors place their capital with the Taepung Group or create joint-ventures with the group. Taepung acts as the manager of the companies. There could be potential deviation from this description, although this is the model envisioned by leading executives on the group. The group aims to “build an economy outside of the state-planned economy.”

What is the Joint-Venture & Investment Commission?

The JVIC is similar to the more traditional investment-promotion agencies in other parts of the world. In addition to promoting North Korea as an investment destination, JVIC officers also work with investors to navigate the North Korean business environment, as well as provide feedback on key policies influencing the investment and economic environment. They oversee North Korea’s Special Economic Zones in Rason and Wihwa Islands and lead government negotiations with China in developing these zones.