Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, center, and other South Korean business tycoons are seen on a plane bound for Pyongyang on Sept 18. South Korean President Moon Jae-in's stock bailout fund will help business tycoons at a time when he needs to crack down on monopolistic behavior. Photo: AFP / Pyeongyang Press Corps

The delegation of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which jetted into Pyongyang on Tuesday for a three-day, two-night summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, features not only a core group of  ministers and advisers – it also includes a high-power delegation from South Korea’s leading conglomerates.

Besuited business royalty joining the trip included Samsung’s de facto leader Lee Jae-yong, SK Chairman Chey Tae-won, LG Chairman Koo Kwang-mo, Hyundai Motor Group Vice-Chairman Kim Yong-hwan and Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun.

While investment delegations frequently accompany their president on trips to more conventional locations around the world, what this group can achieve on this deeply political trip looks limited. They were scheduled to meet North Korea’s deputy premier Ri Ryong Nam, who is in charge of national economic affairs – a priority for the Kim regime – on Tuesday afternoon.

However, what they will discuss, beyond pleasantries, was unclear.

Some South Korea media have speculated that the tycoons’ presence in the delegation was the result of a request from Kim, who is eager for investment in more than 20 special economic zones now established nationwide.

Increasing expectations

South Korean presidential officials declined to confirm this to Asia Times, saying only, in a text message, that the business leaders’ delegation “is the result of negotiations between South Korea and North Korea.”

Experts suspect that in reality, Moon could be dangling a particularly juicy investment carrot before Kim.

“I see this as a way of providing increased expectations to North Korea – that once the North Koreans make a promise [on denuclearization],  then assistance will be coming from South Korea,” said Go Myong-hyun of Seoul-based think tank the Asan Institute. “They are going to Pyongyang and guaranteeing that they are waiting in the wings to invest there,” he added, assuming some kind of political deal can be reached.

Given that the firms represented are international brands, it seems highly unlikely they would consider doing business in North Korea under the current sanctions regime. Indeed, if the companies did sign any deals, they could very well find themselves in the US Treasury Department’s cross-hairs – if not banned from doing business in the world’s largest market.

“They have to be careful, they could become a target of US Treasury secondary sanctions,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “But to be targets, they would first have to do business, and this will not happen any time soon, as any kind of meaningful interaction is banned by UN Security Council resolutions.”

A pet project

“These companies are probably being very well advised by lawyers not to say anything that smacks of interest in investment in North Korea,” added Go. “They are not going to sign up for anything concrete – there will be no MOU to set up a factory in Wonsan.”

Wonsan, on the east coast of the peninsula, is one of Kim’s pet investment destinations. He is reportedly creating a hub of beachfront tourism on the picturesque bay.

However, while for the majority of the South Korean businessmen who went to Pyongyang, whose trip outcomes are likely to be – at best – a reconnaissance, or opening of channels of communication, there is one businessperson in the delegation who might have concrete issues to discuss: Hyundai Group Chairperson Hyun Jeong-eun.

Her group includes Hyundai Asan, an affiliate charged with carrying out projects in North Korea.

Hyundai, under the then-direction of its founder Chung Ju-yung – a legendary South Korean entrepreneur who was born in North Korea – helped kick-start inter-Korean rapprochement in the late 1990s. Chung’s business and diplomatic efforts to invest in North Korea helped pave the way for the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with Pyongyang that Seoul’s liberal governments pursued between 1998 and 2008, with mixed results.

Hyundai Asan was the branch of the group that took the lead on two major North Korean projects which were clearly close to Chung’s heart. The firm established the Kaesong Industrial Complex and an inter-Korean tourist resort at Mount Kumgang – both designed for South Koreans, but both located inside North Korea.

However, both projects foundered on the reefs of inter-Korean politics and enmity. The former was shut down by Seoul amid strategic tensions in 2016; the latter effectively ceased operations after a South Korean tourist there was shot dead by a North Korean soldier after she wandered into an off-limits zone in 2008.

Also, following the death of Chung in 2001, his business empire splintered into different components. Hyundai Group is no longer affiliated with the larger, and more powerful, Hyundai Motor – the de facto flagship brand of the former group companies.

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