'Huge potential' for doing business in North Korea, says Singaporean who opened Pyongyang law firm

Kelvin Chia, 65, one of the founders of Kelvin Chia Partnership. (PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore / Dhany Osman)

There is “huge potential” for overseas companies to do business in North Korea, should the trade sanctions against the reclusive country be lifted.

That’s the belief of Kelvin Chia, a co-founder of Kelvin Chia Partnership, which opened the first foreign law firm in North Korea in 2004.

“I think if you take the nuclear issue off the table, or resolve it, and sanctions are lifted, I see huge potential for the country,” Chia told Yahoo News Singapore at his office in Suntec City, on the eve of the historic 12 June summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The 65-year-old Singaporean has a unique insight into North Korea, having provided legal consultancy services for over a decade to local and multinational companies looking to set up operations in the country.

Recalling his first trip to North Korea in 2004, Chia said he was surprised to find that it was just like any other major city in the world – except for the “complete lack” of retail shops and businesses.

“(It was a) far cry from what you hear on the news. Their infrastructure was pretty good,” said Chua, in reference to the many high-rise buildings in Pyongyang.

Over the years, he has seen sprawling capital progress from a city with “big, beautiful boulevards with hardly any traffic” to one with more cars on the roads and mobile phones in the hands of its residents.

But life in North Korea’s outer provinces is a different story, as Chia recalled of his business trips to the country’s “remote areas”.

“One striking thing we noticed is that… there was hardly any traffic. Their only way of commuting was walking,” he said.

Despite the frequent reports of the country’s rural population being mired in extreme poverty, Chia “never saw people starving to death on the streets”.

Having met many North Koreans – including veteran diplomat and former foreign minister Ri Su-yong – over the years, Chia found them to be “genuinely” very welcoming to foreigners, particularly businessmen.

“They’re very friendly. They’re just like you and me. We never talk about politics, we’re just there to practise law and do business.”

Chia noted that the North Koreans often look to their neighbours, particularly China and Vietnam, when it comes to improving their laws and policies.

Along with the economic progress, Chia has observed that North Koreans also seem a little less rigid in their perceptions of social hierarchy.

“Initially you’d hear about ‘Dear Leader’ this, and ‘Dear Leader’ that. But over the years, you hear it less and less,” he said of his interactions with local officials.

On bilateral relations with Singapore, Chia said the North Koreans value the friendship that the two nations have forged over the years.

As Chia pointed out, the “North Koreans have always claimed to be one of the first countries to recognise Singapore’s independence”.

Getting there early

Kelvin Chia Partnership has been known to be a trail-blazer for setting up shop early in emerging economies such as Vietnam and Myanmar. Formed in 1997, the full-service legal firm has about 200 staff across its Singapore and overseas offices.

On the firm’s decision to open in Pyongyang, Chia said, “We followed our clients.” The webpage for the firm’s office there states that it has the “means to assist foreign investors to source for suitable projects and business partners” such as mining projects in North Korea.

Since the country conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, however, the ensuing sanctions have made it extremely difficult for the firm to operate there.

While Singapore authorities have not explicitly banned local entities from doing business with North Korea, the unwillingness of banks to be involved is hindering growth prospects for Chia’s firm.

“(The banks) think, ‘Your account is so small, why would I want to risk offending the US?” he noted.

‘If anyone can do it, it’s these two’

The issue of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is “not so black and white”, according to Chia. It has to be seen in the context of the historical baggage that the country has carried over the decades following the devastating Korean War, he added.

But Chia is confident that Trump and Kim would make headway in their negotiations and move towards better ties between their two nations.

“I think if anyone can do it, these two can. Trump is totally unconventional, he makes his own decisions,” Chia said.

Noting that Chinese and South Korean companies are raring to explore North Korea once sanctions are lifted, Chia added that his firm will continue to closely monitor developments after the summit.

“We’re looking to go back and restart things in a big way should the opportunity allow us.”

Related stories:

‘I like a challenge’, says Singaporean co-founder of North Korea’s first fast food joint

COMMENT: Trump-Kim summit and the Singapore complex to impress the world

Trump-Kim summit: At least 9 South Koreans involved in separate protests in Singapore; five of them deported

 Trump-Kim summit sets new ‘error’ in Singapore’s history