BEIJING – In the midst of tensions over North Korea's nuclear program, a Western company is there searching for oil. Another just bought a bank.
"North Korea is hungry for business," said Roger Barrett, the British founder of Beijing-based Korea Business Consultants, who recently took 11 Asian and European clients to Pyongyang to play golf and make contacts.
A small group of Westerners are taking on the challenge of doing business in the isolated North, hoping to get in on the ground floor as its communist rulers experiment with economic reform.
The obstacles are daunting. A Stalinist dictatorship, bureaucracy and language barriers. Foreign sanctions that block most financial transfers, making it hard to get paid and to get supplies. And now worries that United Nations sanctions imposed after North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test could be expanded to a general clampdown on trade.
But the Westerners talk positively about the North as a business environment, with skilled workers and leaders who they say welcome foreign investment.
"They are very skillful and hardworking," said Felix Abt, a Swiss businessman who oversees two ventures in Pyongyang, one that makes business and game software for sale in Europe and another that makes antibiotics and painkillers for the domestic market. "It's sometimes faster to get licenses and necessary approvals here than it is in China or Vietnam."
Barrett said that even as the U.N. Security Council debated the latest sanctions on the North, he got inquiries from investors interested in its rich mineral resources and low-cost manufacturing work force.
"Investors are rushing into China, but labor costs there are escalating, and companies are looking for an alternative," Barrett said. North Korea "has absolutely the capabilities to take off like South Korea."
So far the largest foreign business community in North Korea is from China, its main source of trade and aid.
South Korea accounts for most of the North's foreign investment, with stakes totaling $620 million in an export-manufacturing zone and a resort for foreigners. China's investments total just $31 million, according to the Chinese Commerce Ministry.
U.S. regulations allow American companies to trade with North Korea under limited conditions, though tensions between the governments and lack of diplomatic relations raises the risk of doing business. Britain, Germany, Sweden and other Western governments, meanwhile, have official relations with Pyongyang.
North Korea's foreign trade has risen sharply, though the total was less than $4 billion last year, according to South Korean and Chinese government figures. Trade with the South soared by more than 50 percent in 2005 to just over $1 billion.
Most trade is carried out by North Korean state companies, not private entrepreneurs. And some partners are shying away. Trade with Japan, once the North's No. 1 trading partner, tumbled from $1.3 billion in 2001 to just $200 million last year amid tensions with Tokyo over North Korea's abduction of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and '80s.
The Europeans' chamber of commerce in Pyongyang had 12 members when it was launched last year. They include delivery company DHL Express, an Italian law firm and a German venture founded in 2003 to provide Internet access to foreign businesses in Pyongyang.
This tentative foothold follows the slow pace of economic reform in North Korea. Only in 2002 did North Korean leader Kim Jong Il allow limited free enterprise to revive a decrepit economy, which teetered in the 1990s following the loss of Soviet aid and then collapsed amid widespread food shortages. Still, foreign observers say officials are reluctant to give up control, despite prodding from Beijing, which wants faster reforms to reduce its ally's dependence on aid.
Abt, the Swiss businessman, moved to Pyongyang in 2002 after seven years working in Vietnam, another Asian communist economy in the throes of reform.
"I heard that some economic reforms were in the pipeline, and I was quite thrilled to experience the beginning," said Abt.
Now his Vietnamese wife takes their 14-month-old daughter to play at an international school. After work, he goes out to sing karaoke with North Korean co-workers.
But Abt has felt the bite of efforts to pressure the North.
Foreign banks have been leery since Washington last year sanctioned Macau's Banco Delta Asia, which the U.S. said helped the North launder money. China told its banks this month to curtail financial transfers to or from the North.
"It's getting difficult to make bank transfers to suppliers or to get money from customers," Abt said.
He worries that the factory might have to shut down if U.N. sanctions block imports of required chemicals on the grounds that they also could have military uses.
Barrett said his clients have lost access to $11 million in Banco Delta Asia accounts that were frozen by the U.S. sanctions.
Colin McAskill, a British businessman who has done business with the North since the 1970s, is lobbying Washington to fine-tune its sanctions so the bank's customers can withdraw money that was made legally.
McAskill is chairman of Hong Kong-based Koryo Asia Ltd., which said in September it was buying a 70 percent controlling stake in Daedong Credit Bank, North Korea's first foreign-owned financial institution. The bank, which is 30 percent owned by a North Korean bank, serves foreign companies and has accounts at Banco Delta Asia.
North Korea also has turned to Western investors in hopes of developing oil resources and reducing its near-total reliance on China for fuel. It awarded a 20-year exploration concession last year to Aminex plc, a London firm.
Aminex is helping the North Korean government deal with other foreign companies, and in exchange gets to pick where it will drill for oil, its chief executive, Brian Hall, said by phone from London.
Aminex hasn't felt any effects from the nuclear tumult, Hall said.
"We have good relations and no problems with the agreements but are closely watching the political situation," he said.