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Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Pyongyang has an “elaborate plan” to establish 14 special economic zones (SEZs) and will open up its tourism market as a first step to attract investment, former high-ranking North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho said on Monday.
Thae, who has worked at the National Intelligence Service (NIS)-affiliated Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS), since his defection in 2016, also said the DPRK would not pursue China or Vietnam-style broad-stroke economic reforms.
Speaking at a news conference at the National Assembly to mark the publication of his new book “Cypher of the third-floor secretariat,” Thae predicted Pyongyang would seek economic cooperation with the South but continue to block external information and limit free movement.
In his new book, the former DPRK deputy ambassador to the UK says Kim Jong Un plans to expand SEZs to inland areas and create some 14 zones structured like the KIC.
The former high-profile diplomat also says Kim Jong Un believed the financial benefits of such economic zones outweighed the risks.
Kim reportedly thought the KIC was “much more beneficial” for the DPRK than the country’s informal markets – known as Jangmadang – as it was easier to control.
Thae, however, on Monday said the DPRK leader is aware that South Korean companies would be reluctant to invest in the North following the KIC shutdown.
“Therefore, North Korea is meticulously calculating to the end,” Thae said. “[Kim] plans to pave the way for opening tourism market first, and to develop the special economic zones later.”
Pyongyang will expand its tourism market as a first step to attracting potential foreign direct investment (FDI), he continued.
The DPRK will “allow South Koreans to visit the country freely for two or three years” by selling tour packages of Mount Kumgang, the Kaesong region, and the Wonsan-Kalma coastal area.
“It will pursue the direction of opening tourism market first and developing exclusive industrial zone later based on an elaborate plan that the South Korean companies will make the investment gradually and regain… confidence,” he said.
Thae cited the ongoing construction of the Wonsan-Kalma coastal area as an example, adding that Kim Jong Un’s education in Switzerland – a major tourism destination – was driving his belief in its potential to improve the DPRK economy.
Monday also saw the former DPRK diplomat express his hopes that his book could play a role in the goal of North Korean denuclearization by informing readers of North Korea’s true intentions.
Thae said he had postponed the publication of his book – originally planned for release in March – because of last month’s inter-Korean summit.
“The publication was put off as it could work as an unfavorable factor and variable ahead of the summit…,” he said, adding Pyongyang is expected to be “furious” about its release.
Thae also warned the South Korean government not to be fooled by what has been described as North Korea’s ongoing diplomatic “charm offensive.”
The former diplomat warned against “believing that the North has changed and that [Kim] is very normal, cool and decisive and is showing a bold behavior in virtually abandoning his nuclear arsenals.”
What concerned him the most, he said, was that the international community would ultimately concede and recognize the DPRK as a nuclear weapons state having not fully verified its denuclearization.
Speaking at the news conference on Monday, Thae also explained the meaning of his book’s title “Cypher of the third-floor secretariat.”
The title is a reference to a secretive office on the third floor of the headquarters of the DPRK’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), he said, which is believed to be a “control tower like the South Korean Presidential Secretariat” and reports only to the leader.
He learned of its existence in 2015, he added, when escorting Kim Jong Chul, Kim Jong Un’s older brother, at a concert in London and received English-language coded messages from the office.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Feature Image: Guiparang