[1월23일 세계언론 속 아시아] 북한 경제특구 13곳 추가 발표…’실패잔혹사’ 반복?

<알자지라> 나선·신의주 등?경제특구 실패···성공지역은 개성뿐, 전망 ‘불투명’

[아시아엔=편집국] 북한이 최근 경제특구 13곳 추가 설치를 발표했다. 그동안 북한의 경제특구 중 성공사례는 극히 드물다. 북한은 1991년 북-중, 북-러의 접경지대인 나선(나진, 선봉)을 경제특구로 지정했다. 당시 북한은 나선의 지정학적 강점을 강조하며 경제특구가 ‘부의 삼각지대’가 될 것이라 주장했다.

그러나 사회기반시설이 1940년대 수준에 불과한 북한에 기대를 거는 투자자는 많지 않았다. 현재 나선에는 중국으로 가는 고속도로와 러시아로 가는 철도가 있으나, 특구 지정 초기에는 이마저도 없었다. 지금까지도 ‘나선 경제특구’는 전력공급이 불안해 투자자들에게 확신을 주지 못하고 있다. 나선은 23년간 중국 상인들이 중국산 제품을 판매하는 도매시장으로 몰락해왔다. 또한 거대한 카지노 호텔로 ‘B급 카지노 리조트’라는 오명을 얻기도 했다.

2002년 경제특구로 지정된 신의주는 중국 국경 부근에 위치해 있으며, 다른 지역에 비해 인구가 많고 발전된 도시였다. 신의주 경제특구는 특구 자체법안, 특구 깃발 및 상징물을 만드는 등 ‘국가 속 국가’를 목표로 삼았다. 북한 당국은 신의주의 기존 거주민들을 이주시키고, 유능하고 당에 충성을 다하는 노동자들에게 거주권한을 부여했으며 외국인에게 신의주 행정을 맡길 것이라 밝혔다.

당시 북한이 선택한 관리자는 우호관계를 유지해오던 중국계 네덜란드 국적의 양빈(楊斌, 당시 39세) 전 유라시아그룹 총재였다. 신의주는 ‘제2의 홍콩특별행정구’로 큰 기대를 모았으나, 불과 몇 개월 후 처참히 무너졌다. 중국 당국은 신의주경제특구가 양빈의 사욕을 채우는 ‘봉건영토’와 ‘도박천국’으로 몰락할 것을 염려했다. 결국 중국은 내사 중이던 양빈을 긴급히 연행했고, 신의주 경제특구 개발도 사실상 무산됐다.

현재 북한에서 제 기능을 하고 있는 경제특구는 개성공단뿐이다. 남한의 소규모 기업들이 개성공단에서 공장을 운영하고 있지만, 이는 경제적 유인보단 정치적 유인이 크다. 북한은 해외투자자들이 공장건설과 노동인력육성을 넘어서 사회기반시설까지 건설해주길 바라고 있다. 하지만 투자자들은 북한의 정치이념이 노동환경에 제약을 가하기 때문에 오히려 중국에 투자하는 것이 더 낫다고 판단한다.

과거의 숱한 실패에도 불구하고, 이번 경제특구 발표는 사뭇 다르다. 북한의 새 정권은 국제시장의 작동원리에 대해 어느 정도 이해하고 있고, 경제특구의 해외자본 유치가 전혀 불가능한 시나리오는 아니기 때문이다. 그러나 북한의 ‘경제특구 잔혹사’를 돌이켜보면, 북한이 해외투자자들의 구미를 당기는 투자처가 아님은 분명하다. 또한 북한 정부도 이를 인정하고, 과거의 실패를 반면교사 삼아야 한다. 번역·요약 노지영 인턴기자

North Korea opens its doors, a little.

North Korea will build Special Economic Zones but will investors risk it? North Korea once again indicated that it takes Special Economic Zones (SEZs) very seriously; KCNA, the country’s official wire agency, reported that plans for thirteen SEZs have just been announced.

From the North Korean government’s point of view, this drive makes sense. The North Korean elite understands that they need to find ways to earn a hard currency income, but they are afraid that such zones will spread dangerously liberal ideas among their people. So the SEZ, fenced off and controlled, looks like a perfect idea; the zones are expected to become small islands of foreign infestation, profitable, but easy to control.

However, North Korea’s past experiences with the SEZs are not all that encouraging – so far, all attempts to use the SEZ strategy have ended North Korea once again indicated that it takes Special Economic Zones (SEZs) very seriously; KCNA, the country’s official wire agency, reported that plans for 13 SEZs have just been announced.

From the North Korean government’s point of view, this drive makes sense. The North Korean elite understands that they need to find ways to earn a hard currency income, but they are afraid that such zones will spread dangerously liberal ideas among their people. So the SEZ, fenced off and controlled, looks like a perfect idea; the zones are expected to become small islands of foreign infestation, profitable, but easy to control.

However, North Korea’s past experiences with the SEZs are not all that encouraging – so far, all attempts to use the SEZ strategy have ended in nought. The first attempt occurred in 1991, when the North Korean government tried to establish an SEZ in an area now known as Rason. This is a remote northeastern corner of the country where the borders of North Korea, China, and Russia meet.

Triangle of wealth

At the time, it was argued that this place was going to become a “golden triangle of wealth” because of its favourable location, but it seems that the North Korean leadership wanted to keep the hotbed of free market debauchery as far away from the major population centres as possible.

The world’s business community was, at first, relatively positive about the venture, but it soon became clear that nobody was going to invest in an area that had vintage 1940s infrastructure. Until recently, there were no paved roads in the Rason region and relatively reliable transport links – a highway to China and a reasonably modern railway to Russia – only appeared there in the last few years. While electricity supply is still a big problem.

Thus, for most of its 23-year history, the Rason SEZ served as a large wholesale market where Chinese merchants sold their goods. Due to its Emperor casino hotel, it gathered some notoriety as a minor gambling resort as well.

Recently, the Russian railway company rebuilt an ancient railway and port facilities, and began to use the area to ship coal to South Korea and elsewhere, but that’s about it. The story of the Sinuiju SEZ, another similar project, is more colourful. The Sinuiju SEZ was launched in 2002, amid great fanfare.?

Sinuiju is also located on the Chinese border, but on its southern end – which is more heavily populated and developed. In September 2002, the North Korean rubber stamp parliament passed the “Basic Law of the Sinuiju Special Economic Region”.

The summer of 2002 was a time when the North Korean government was seemingly quite serious about reforms. But even by the standards of those times, the plans were really radical.

The proposed Sinuiju SEZ was to become a state-within-a-state, with its own set of laws and even its own emblem and flag. It was assumed that a significant portion of the native population would be removed and replaced with specially selected workers, chosen for their industriousness and political reliability.

The situation became all the more peculiar when the North Korean government declared that the new SEZ would be ruled by a foreigner. Their choice was Yang Bin, a Chinese real estate tycoon with good relations with Pyongyang.

It seems that the idea was to imitate Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region (SAR) in China, and the North Korean vice minister for foreign trade would become a “new historic miracle”. It all collapsed within a couple of months.

To an extent, the project ran aground due to concerns of Chinese who were not warned by their troublesome neighbours about the grand plan.

Given Yang Bin’s background, the Chinese authorities were obviously fearful that the proposed SEZ might become Yang’s quasi-feudal kingdom and, more worryingly, a large gambling heaven.

Yang, already under investigation, was promptly arrested and handed a large custodial sentence, disappearing into the Chinese prison system – yet to emerge. At the same time, the zeal for reforms in Pyongyang suddenly evaporated, and the ambitious project was promptly abandoned.

These are the two best known SEZs, but there have been some smaller attempts by the North Korean government that have also ended in failure. The only SEZ which really works is the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where North Koreans work at the factories owned by the small South Korean firms.

However, Kaesong survival has always been possible due to the generosity of the South Korean taxpayers – and Seoul has political reasons to keep it afloat. With other projects, the pattern was the same; after a short period of hype, proposed SEZs waxed on the vine because no foreign business was interested in investing there.

The North Korean side expected foreigners not merely to invest in production facilities and worker training, but also to build a transport and other infrastructure, often from the scratch.

Potential foreign investors soon came to realise that due to political concerns, the North Korea government would not give them the freedom to hire and fire local personnel at will, and will not even necessarily allow foreign resident managers. So, they usually prefer to invest in China, with better conditions and a much larger market.

This time, though, things might be different. The new leadership in Pyongyang has a somewhat better understanding of how the international market works, and it is not impossible that they will attract some capital to the SEZs this time.

However, one has to be cautious; the past experience shows that North Korea is not good at enticing foreign investors to take the plunge.

 

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