North Korea and Thailand are warming diplomatic ties

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 Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, left, shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Thanasak Patimaprakorn in Bangkok, Thailand.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, left, shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Thanasak Patimaprakorn in Bangkok, Thailand.

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.

Loxley company

Loxley Pacific Thailand

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.

 

 

 

Envoy says South Korea must end rice quotas to see real Thai food in Seoul restaurants

Thai Ambassador to South Korea Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open the South Korean rice market, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country. I interviewed him at his office in Hannam-dong, in Seoul, on Sept. 16, 2013.
Thai Ambassador to South Korea Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open the South Korean rice market, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country. I interviewed him at his office in Hannam-dong, in Seoul, on Sept. 16, 2013.

[This article was written originally for The Korea Herald in September 2013.]

Ever eat out at an authentic Thai restaurant here in Seoul, South Korea? It is doubtful that you have, according to the Thai Embassy in South Korea.

There is a dearth of restaurants in South Korea serving real Thai cuisine made from real Thai ingredients at the moment, according to the Thai Ambassador to South Korea. But he is keen to change that.

Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open markets here, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country.

The embassy is determined to upgrade Thai restaurants and the popularity of Thai cuisine here with a number of promotional campaigns, such as one this week: “Thai Restaurant Week” from Sept. 23-29.

“When we launched a promotional campaign earlier this year at a restaurant at Lotte Hotel, we found it extremely difficult to even buy domestically-sold Thai rice,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Sept. 16.

Thailand exported 90 tons of kitchen table rice to South Korea in 2012, a fraction of a percentage point of the 30,000 tons of rice exported from here to Thailand. The vast majority of Thai rice exported to South Korea is low-grade brown rice destined for industrial uses, such as in the manufacture of store-bought makgeolli, Korean fermented rice wine.

Put simply, Thai restaurants cannot make the grade if chefs cannot get their hands on quality agricultural products from Thailand, according to Kittiphong.

Of the 172 restaurants that the embassy determined serve Thai cuisine, 71 were selected to participate in this week’s promotional campaign.

The problem, according to Kittiphong, rests with South Korean import quotas. The permitted amount of Thai rice, poultry, fruit and other agricultural shipments ― which made up about 20 percent of its total exports of 13.6 billion won ($12.5 million) in 2012 ― is limited. Kittiphong wants the quota lifted.

South Korea and Thailand agreed to seek preliminary discussions and a joint study on forging a comprehensive economic partnership agreement when former President Lee Myung-bak met with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok in November 2012.

The two nations also agreed to seek to increase bilateral trade to $30 billion by 2016. Such an enormous increase in trade ― a doubling over the next three years ― could only be met by lifting South Korea’s import quotas on Thai rice, poultry and such Thai fruits as longan and pomelo, the ambassador said.

Thailand currently has a huge rice surplus stockpiled by the government as a result of a recent price support scheme, meant to help out small farmers.

If sold at current market prices, however, the stored rice would result in profit losses and government deficits. Thailand is aggressively searching for untapped markets.

The Thai government’s new intervention began with the landslide electoral victory of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party in 2011. In the subsequent two years, it has allocated $18.7 billion to buy rice and shore up support for farmers. The government currently has 10 million tons of rice in storage. This month, the government extended the policy, which could lead to an additional 10 million tons after the 2013-14 harvest due to start in October.

A career diplomat, the mild-mannered Kittiphong expressed frustration at the pace of Thailand-South Korea talks on lifting restrictions on imports, saying that the preliminary FTA talks and a joint feasibility study should take place in tandem with lifting the Thai rice quota.

“When we raised the issue last year, they said that it was a bad time because it was the end of the previous government, that we had to wait for the new government to settle into place,” he said. “But when the new government came in, they said it is the restructuring the ministry, that trade is being separated from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The issue of rice, chicken and fruits has been on the table for years, so we should be able to resolve that issue separately,” he said.

Why certain imported food items are not available on grocery store shelves in South Korea is debatable. According to proponents of the current restrictions, it is a matter of weak demand for Thai agricultural products.

Critics of the restrictions point to stiff non-tariff barriers here, such as sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures that they say are unfairly leveraged by the government to limit imports.

Discussions on lifting the quota on Thai rice appear slow. So, the embassy is focused on stimulating demand for Thai kitchen table food items through promotion drives such as its current effort.

In “Thai Restaurant Week,” diners are entered into a lucky draw with every minimum purchase of 50,000 won or more on a single receipt. The embassy will announce the winners in mid-October. Four grand-prize winners will receive round-trip flight tickets to Thailand.

Six restaurants are participating in the Thai Select program: Golden Thai in Songpa, Sala Thai’s Jamsil branch, Sala Thai’s Bundang branch, Siam at Seoul Station, Thai Orchid in Itaewon, and Wang Thai, also in Itaewon.