Warming diplomatic ties between Thailand and North Korea could mean a lot more investment into the country by one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest nations.
North Korea is always looking for ways to break out from international sanctions and US-led diplomatic isolation.
But now a Thai military leader, a man who also leads the country’s foreign ministry, is encouraging his country to invest in North Korea.
Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn in August 2015 (about two weeks ago) said he wants Thai businesses and individuals to invest in North Korea, and suggested Thailand could be a bridge between the hermit country and the international community.
(FYI, Thailand military overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin Shinawatra. She was elected in August 2011 and was overthrown by a military junta in May 2014.)
Thailand is working to upgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea, and has already said it will soon open an embassy in Pyongyang “soon.”
“To open an embassy in any country is a good sign, but all related processes must be carefully considered, including staff and budgets,” General Tanasak said.
Gen. Tanasak discussed a number of bilateral issues with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Su-yong, including a “trade cooperation deal.”
If a deal does get worked out, it would facilitate Thai investment in North Korea’s special economic zone, among other things. But actually, Thailand has a history of investing in North Korea.
Thai-based corporation Loxley Pacific invested massively in North Korea’s IT infrastructure and, in particular, the country’s internet, namely in the Star Joint Venture Company.
The Star JV is a joint venture between Loxley, which is one of the country’s most powerful family-owned conglomerates, which is one of the country’s most powerful family-owned conglomerates, and North Korea’s Post and Telecommunications Corporation, and Star JV took control of North Korea’s Internet address allocation system on Dec. 21, 2009, the country’s single Internet Service Provider.
Gen. Tanasak said the two ministers talk a lot about IT, as well as other issues like health, education and regional issues.
The general also said that Thailand “offered to facilitate talks between North Korea and any country it had conflict with,” according to reports coming from Thai media outlets.
Thai kidnap victim
Mr Ri reportedly told General Tanasak that authorities would follow up the case of Anocha Panjoy, a Thai national who was abducted from Macau by North Korean agents back in 1978.
Former US serviceman Charles Jenkins and his wife told the media they said they saw Ms Anocha alive and well in North Korea.
Before the meeting of the foreign ministers, Phil Robertson, Human Right Watch’s deputy director for the Asia division, pressured Gen. Tanasak to press North Korea for the return of Anocha. There are other human rights issues stunting diplomatic ties from warming up.
Thailand is one of the countries used by North Korean defectors as a transit point to resettle in South Korea. The number of North Koreans who traveling into Thailand has decreased from around 2,000 in 2011 to under 500 in 2015, according to a Thai media report.
The powwow between the two foreign ministers was filled with many niceties, however. North Korea’s Ri Su-yong passed on good wishes from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit on her 83rd birthday.
He invited Gen Tanasak to visit North Korea as part of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two East Asian countries.
An exchange of diplomatic visits began in May 2015 when deputy foreign minister Don Pramudwinai visited Pyongyang. Ri Su-yong is the first high-level North Korean diplomat to visit Thailand in a decade, when its then foreign minister Paek Nam-sun visited in 2005.
During his trip in Thailand, Ri Su-yong visited Thai royal family’s pet projects and agricultural pilot programs. Two weeks ago, the North Korean official was on an Southeast Asian diplomatic mission that included trips to Brunei and meetings with ASEAN officials.
The Basmati Rice Issue
Earlier this year, the North Korean ambassador to Thailand, Mun Song-mo, asked the government to set up a diplomatic compound in Pyongyang. However, a government source said this would not happen in the near future.
Five of 10 ASEAN countries — Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam — have diplomatic missions in the North Korean capital.
Diplomatic ties between Thailand and North Korea were quite smooth, especially as Thailand had played a key role in bringing North Korea to the ASEAN Regional Forum back in 2000, when Thailand held the ASEAN chairmanship.
Two sticky Thai-North Korea issues include not only the kidnapping of Thai national Anocha back in the 1970s, but also North Korea’s outstanding rice debt payment. The Thai foreign minister said the issue of rice debt payment was not touched upon but would be discussed in later talks.
North Korea owes Thailand about $300 million after Thailand exported 750,000 tons of rice to North Korea from 1993 to 2002 when the country suffered devastating famine and floods.
Bilateral trade between North Korea and Thailand $42 million in the first half of this year, nearly of that in the form of exports from Thailand ($39 million). Two-way trade was $126 million in 2014 and in 2013 it was $114 million. Thai exports to North Korea including rubber, chemicals and plastics, and Thai imports comprising mainly chemicals, iron and steel, and electrical machinery.