More than a century after American mining engineers first opened up North Korea's gold mines, a fortune in gold and other metals and minerals offers the prospect for North Korea to ease the pressures of financial sanctions.
The question, however, is whether North Korea can navigate around a US Treasury order that forbids institutions doing business in the United States from dealing with Banco Delta Asia in Macao, the main avenue for North Korean financial dealings.
The Treasury ban, first promulgated in 2005, has effectively frozen the North's efforts to conduct international business. While it doesn't extend to gold, market experts say that US officials have made it clear that banks should not buy North Korean gold. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the year the Treasury ban was instituted.]
"The US has been using coercion, innuendo, and sheer force to intimidate banks from dealing with North Korea," says Colin McAskill, chairman of Koryo Asia Ltd., which invests in North Korea through the Chosun Development & Investment Fund. "We want to get a breakthrough on the six-party talks by getting the sanctions eased or lifted entirely. We're at a very delicate stage."
North Korea, says Mr. McAskill, "wants to move back into legitimate business." Selling gold on the London market – the world's largest – "is one way they can prove that," he adds. "They have a wealth of minerals – gold, silver, zinc, magnesite, copper, uranium, platinum – that needs investment to extract."
One indication of North Korea's need to sell gold was its decision to provide information needed by the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA) to list the North's central bank as a "good deliverer" of gold and silver. Listing with the LBMA is essential for refiners who want to sell their products in London. The bank's listing was suspended 2-1/2 years ago when it failed to respond to LBMA requests for "proactive monitoring."
The LBMA said it does not "take into account any political criteria," and will keep the bank on its rolls for another three years without monitoring.
Despite the listing, market experts say the big banks that are major buyers of gold – and form the LBMA's core membership – are not likely to flout the spirit of the US Treasury order against Banco Delta Asia, through which North Korea exported gold prior to the ban.
"The fact that they're on the list does not mean they can deliver to the London market," says Stewart Murray, the LBMA's chief executive. "When we have sanctions, none of the facilities will accept delivery from a company or a country that is subject to these sanctions,"
Trying to build momentum for talks
The reluctance of buyers in London to deal in North Korean gold, widely seen as the likeliest legal way to mitigate the impact of the banking ban, adds urgency to another effort at six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons.
The chief US negotiator, Christopher Hill, has been traveling through northeast Asia, stopping off here, in Tokyo, and in Beijing after talks in Berlin last week with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-Gwan. The Chinese are expected to set a date for renewing the talks, which broke off before Christmas amid North Korean demands for the US to lift the ban on Banco Delta Asia.
North Korea raised hopes for renewed six-party talks, saying "a certain agreement" was reached in Berlin last week. Neither Mr. Kim nor Mr. Hill have provided details, but analysts suspect that the two discussed the financial issue and its relationship to the ultimate purpose of six-party talks: getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
North Korea has been renewing its drive to sell gold for the past year since submitting to the LBMA's monitoring requirements. At the same time, the North has sold relatively small amounts of gold in Thailand, with which it has developed a strong trading relationship in recent years. Last spring, North Korea exported 1.3 tons of gold to Thailand for nearly $30 million while also looking for markets elsewhere in the region.
"Why would you go to the trouble of going to London," asks Roger Barrett, whose firm, Korea Business Consultants in Beijing, is helping to develop gold mining in North Korea. "They're totally entitled to sell their gold."
Yet there have been no reports that North Korea has exported any gold since testing seven long-range missiles in July. Since the North conducted an underground nuclear test in October, which resulted in deeper sanctions from the UN Security Council, dealers have reportedly been even more reluctant to buy North Korean gold.
Estimates of North Korea's gold reserves range as high as 2,000 tons, but mining has been sporadic since British, American, and then Japanese interests mined for gold beginning in the 19th century. With foreign expertise, North Korean mining may return to the period between 1983 to 1993, when its central bank sold an average of one ton a month on the London market.
"What we're doing is normal business," says Mr. Barrett in Beijing, explaining the efforts at reviving the mining industry. "We're creating jobs for people, in line with the UN basic charter, in line with economic growth."