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After being punished with extra UN sanctions for launching a long-range rocket, North Korea may now be turning to foreign investment from Singapore and Indonesia to boost its economy.

North Korea looks to Singapore, Indonesia for economy boost (Credit: ABC) North Korea's ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, visited the Southeast Asian nations this week in what's being called a bid to build economic partnerships with the countries.

Mr Kim, the President of the Presidium of North Korea's Parliament, spent two days in Singapore where he visited a food factory and an electronics manufacturer.

Observers say North Korea may have used the trip to learn how to develop a successful growth model that does not threaten Pyongyang's political power structure.

Others say, Singapore offers an attractive model to North Korea for attracting direct foreign investment.

Presenter: Bill Bainbridge

Speaker: Professor Zhi Zhiqun, visiting Senior Research Fellow at Singapore's East Asian Institute

ZHU: I think Mr Kim is here trying to break up the isolation and sanctions imposed by western powers, especially the United States and Japan. So he's trying to reach out to form partnerships with other countries.

BAINBRIDGE: And is that working with Singapore, I mean what kind of history do Singapore and North Korea have in terms of their trade relationship?

ZHU: My understanding is that Singapore already has some investment in North Korea, so does Indonesia. And I have to say that many of these Southeast Asian nations are less ideological and less critical of North Korea. So from a pure business perspective I think they see North Korea as a new frontier for investing, so it's a good opportunity for many countries in the region.

BAINBRIDGE: Why do you think that is that they're less as you put it, ideological and critical of North Korea? Why don't they go along with the UN approach, the US approach to isolate North Korea and punish it for its threatening positions on nuclear armament?

ZHU: That's a good point, I think in general these countries also support UN resolutions and support western countries approach to North Korea. However I don't think and they completely agree with specific policies. For example basically western powers, especially the United States their approach to North Korea is based on sanctions and isolation and I think this kind of approach lacks creativity and is really morally deficient, because what kind of objective can these policies achieve? Well it's the poor North Korean people who are suffering, the North Korean ruling elites in Pyongyang are not going to be affected by such an approach. So I think many countries in the region perhaps think differently from the United States and other western powers. So they may wish to try a different approach.

BAINBRIDGE: So is there evidence then on the other hand that engagement with North Korea by Singapore and Indonesia and other countries is acutally promoting more openness from North Korea?

ZHU: I think so, for example Indonesia and North Korea recently signed an agreement to exchange news, photos, tv footage, earlier Associated Press already opened a bureau in Pyongyang. So I think there are signs, there are indications that North Korea is moving positively towards integrating itself with the international community. And also I learnt that for example previously visitors to North Korea cannot take photos and cannot carry cell phones with them, and more recently such restrictions have been eased. So there are positive signs from North Korea, so I think such a development needs to be encouraged.

BAINBRIDGE: So what some people are suggesting is that North Korea wants to learn from Singapore's economic model. Why would Singapore be an appealing model to the North Koreans?

ZHU: Well you remember before Kim Jong-il died China invited Kim Jong-il to visit two towns like Shanghai, Shenzhen. I think Kim Jong-il was probably very impressed. However China is such a big country, I think smaller nations in Southeast Asia are perhaps more relevant, and I think perhaps North Korea feels that Singapore especially as one of the four tigers has much to offer to North Korea, unlike China which is a totally different situation. So I believe that Singapore serves as a good model for North Korea, especially in terms of attracting foreign investment.

BAINBRIDGE: And what about Indonesia. Kim Yong Nam is in Indonesia now, what do you think he'll gain from that trip?

ZHU: Indonesia is a different story. Indonesia and North Korea actually have had good relations since the 1950s. I think they established relations in the early 1960s. Indonesia offers a different model because Indonesia is also a nation rich in resources. And North Korea is in the same situation, North Korea actually has a lot of minerals and other resources. I think they can make a lot of money by exporting these resources and Indonesia definitely has much to offer in this regard.

BAINBRIDGE: And so perhaps a closer model for North Korea would be Singapore?

ZHU: Well I would say both Indonesia and Singapore can offer something to North Korea. And of course especially in terms of growth and investment. Perhaps Singapore offers a better model, a better approach, but I think North Korea can really learn a lot from many of these countries in the region, and it can also learn from China, although it's on a much larger scale. So by and large I believe that all these countries in the region need to encourage North Korea, to help North Korea to integrate into the regional economy and that's the proper approach I believe. Personally I don't like, I don't think the sanctions and the isolation preferred by western powers will work.


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