In 2007, my wife Paige and I received permission to visit North Korea. I wanted to go there because I sensed that changes were coming.
Now I am not a tour group kind of person. I like to make my own way and create my own itinerary, to decide where to go and what to eat. That is not an option in North Korea, where we had government minders every minute we were there. Walking down the main thoroughfare in Pyongyang, I saw a barbershop, and because I needed a haircut, I ducked inside, where an old man sitting on a stool stood up in shock when I started pantomiming the use of scissors with my hands. I was summarily pulled outside by one of our minders. A haircut, he assured me, was not on the agenda.
By 2007, I think, only something like three hundred Americans had been to North Korea since before the Second World War — there was some strange statistic like that. Virtually no Americans had been allowed to go there since General Douglas MacArthur’s troops went across in the early 1950s.
It was clear to me that the North Koreans knew that their country needed changing. And it was not hard to understand why. All the North Korean generals, as young officers, thirty years ago, were sent to places like Beijing, Moscow, and Shanghai. Today they go as generals and see the changes that have taken place, and when they return to Pyongyang they say to themselves: Look at what is going on in those places, and now take a look at where we live — nothing has happened here, this place is still a disaster.
The country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, was educated at a private school in Switzerland. It is very unlikely that a guy who is thirty years old and spent his formative years in Europe is going to come back and say, “Boy, I really like this, with no bars, no entertainment, no cars, no nothing.”
These men have been exposed to the outside world, and they know what is going on there. And in my view that is why North Korea is about to open up. And when it does, it will be a formidable player on the world stage. The Chinese are already pouring in. Up in the northwest, they are building new bridges connecting the two countries. There are new trade zones up there. So change is happening.
Everywhere we went we could see propaganda posters calling for one country, two systems — which was the prevailing mantra in the late 1990s when Hong Kong went back to China. If the propaganda is to be believed, the country, despite what you might read in the United States, is keen for unification. A unified Korea would be an economic powerhouse. The only opponents of such a positive step are the United States and Japan.
If North and South Korea unite, Japan will be faced with a huge new competitor, much more powerful a competitor than South Korea is right now. There will be a country of seventy-five to eighty million people right on the Chinese border, with lots of cheap, disciplined labour and natural resources in the north and lots of capital, expertise, and management capabilities in the south. Such a country would run circles around Japan. The cost of doing business in Japan is high and getting higher. Among other things, the Japanese do not have a lot of cheap labour anymore.
Japan is against unification for obvious reasons. I am not sure why America is against it, other than simple inertia. For American bureaucrats, who are intellectually lethargic, characteristically slow to change their thinking, a divided Korea is a way of life. Several thousand US soldiers are stationed in South Korea — it is something of an industry, and an entire bureaucracy subsists on the industry’s continuity.
Where are the investment opportunities in North Korea? one might ask. I invest in markets, and there is no market there, so I would have to find companies, maybe Chinese or other Asian companies, that would benefit from the opening up of North Korea. I do not know of such companies right now. But North Korea is ripe for factories, hotels, restaurants, pretty much anything at this point. North Korea has nothing — no mobile phones, no Internet. Like Myanmar, the country lacks everything from the most basic goods and services to the highest technology. Yes, Myanmar has the Internet, but very little penetration. Yes, both countries have soap, but not nearly enough. Yes, both countries have electricity, but not nearly enough.
Tourism, I believe, presents investment opportunities in North Korea. There are only twenty-five million North Koreans, so there is not going to be a big boom in their travelling the world, but there is probably going to be a big boom in South Koreans visiting North Korea. There will be a staggering business in marriage, because there is a huge shortage of girls in South Korea. South Korean men can look for wives in Los Angeles or Queens, but the main source of Korean brides is going to be North Korea. The north does not suffer from the demographic problem that plagues the South.
I am dying to find a way to invest in both North Korea and Myanmar. The major changes in these two countries are among the most exciting things I see right now, looking to the future.
Reprinted from “Street Smarts” Copyright © 2013 by Jim Rogers. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, a division Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.