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[Herald Interview] Singaporean consultant optimistic about business opportunities in NK

SINGAPORE -- When Michael Heng, a business strategist and former professor, heard that the US and North Korea were going to hold a summit, he felt it was finally time for something to happen in the reclusive state.

He asked his friend, an official at the North Korean Embassy in Singapore, if he could take some Singaporeans on a mission to tap future business opportunities in the North.

A day after the summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore earlier this month, the North’s Korea Committee for the Promotion of International Trade sent an invitation to Heng, the 63-year-old director of recruitment firm People Worldwide Consulting, to bring Singaporean businessmen to the country.

Singaporean business strategist Michael Heng
Singaporean business strategist Michael Heng

“If Singaporean companies don’t start moving now, they won’t have a chance in North Korea because once they open up, they will do business mainly with the South Koreans,” Heng told The Korea Herald.

“I think the (United Nations) sanctions on North Korea will begin to ease by the year-end.”

The five-day trip from Sept. 18 will accommodate 18 participants to explore market opportunities in North Korea and meet with its “movers and shakers,” according to Heng.

Twelve firms including a textile manufacturer, an air-conditioner component maker and an event company that organizes trade fairs have already paid participation fees of 4,950 Singapore dollars ($3,647, if departing from Singapore) or SG$4,500 (if joined from Beijing) per person, and another four are expected to make their payments.

Heng said he is now interviewing prospective participants, such as property developers and financial investors, to select the most suitable candidates for the trip.

The human resources management consultant, who has helped businesses set up in China, Vietnam and Myanmar for the past 30 years, expects the market opening of North Korea to happen faster than in Myanmar.

“And when North Korea opens up, because its base is low, it will develop faster than Vietnam, which is moving faster than China. The thrust of investment (in the North) will be South Korea,” he said.

“The labor costs in the North I think will be cheaper than in Africa, Bangladesh or China.”

Heng sees great potential in the North’s population of 25 million, abundant natural resources such as fisheries, and tourism assets. One of the companies on the mission, which does organic farming in Myanmar and Thailand, is interested in farming in the North.

The North has yet to provide a detailed itinerary, but there will probably be a briefing on investment rules by officials of the Ministry of External Economic Relations, and a half-day city tour on the first day.

Heng asked the North to explain its contract regulations and how investment partnerships work.

There will be a session on the tourist resort zone under construction in the eastern coastal city of Wonsan.

The participants may also visit an autumn trade fair taking place during their trip, with an objective to meet with local manufacturers, according to Heng.

“The mission is a private sector initiative to show the North Koreans that we are friends,” he said.

“I hope to come back with potential projects for which we will need an assurance of investment, repatriation of profits and sanctity of contracts.”

By Kim So-hyun (