Singapore businesses eye opportunities in North Korea in hope of change

(Reuters) - Nearly 20 Singaporean businesses people are expected to visit North Korea to explore opportunities there, an executive said on Thursday, in anticipation of better ties after Singapore played host to a North Korea-U.S. summit.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, accompanied by Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, visits Singapore in this picture released on June 11, 2018 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. KCNA via REUTERS

Michael Heng, a business consultant in Singapore, said he got an invitation for a delegation to visit North Korea on June 13, the day after its leader, Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed in Singapore to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

“We should start readying now, to get ready to rush the moment the doors open,” Heng told Reuters.

Heng said he had been discussing opportunities with a high-level North Korean contact for two months before the summit and he planned to take up to 18 Singaporean businessmen there in September to meet authorities and talk to other foreign business people there.

Time was of the essence, he said.

“We need the first-mover advantage before the place gets swarmed by the Chinese or South Koreans.”

Singapore was North Korea’s seventh largest trading partner before it implemented U.N. resolutions imposed for the North’s defiant nuclear and missile programs of more than a dozen years, cutting trade ties and banning transactions with its banks.

Singapore also canceled the work passes of North Koreans.

Singapore was also home to several North Korean-controlled businesses which came under U.N. investigations for possible sanctions violations.

The sanctions remain in place and no firm deals would be struck while that was the case, Heng said.

But in the meantime, Singapore business people should get prepared. The trip would focus on specific industries including food retail, textiles and information and communication technology, he said.

“It is a matter of when the sanctions will be lifted, not if,” Heng said.

“If we give them a chance, North Korea will definitely open up to the world.”

Reporting by Dewey Sim; Editing by Jack Kim, Robert Birsel