SEOUL, South Korea – Michael Hay, who died in Seoul, South Korea, aged 58, founded the first and only international law firm in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Hay, of mixed French and Scottish parentage, had an attachment to North Korea that verged on the romantic. Deeply drawn to the people and the society, if not the regime, his best efforts to positively engage with the heavily sanctioned nation were eventually stymied on all fronts.
His death – the cause is yet to be determined, though police say there are no signs of suspicious circumstances – shocked many in the Seoul expatriate and global North Korea-watching communities.
However, close friends said a downward spiral had been apparent in the months and weeks leading up to this death on February 26.
An enquiry into his life, work and demise suggests tragedy. Hay suffered from chronic health issues, but linked his passion to his self-appointed mission, investing massive energy in North Korea. He ended as a victim of unfulfilled expectations resulting from geopolitical events far beyond his control.
Hay’s story may read like a Graham Greene novel, but he was neither the first, nor the last of the tiny handful of full-time North Korea engagers to suffer dire misfortune.
Hay, a native of Stirling, Scotland, was the child of a Scottish father and a French mother. Academically gifted, he earned an LL.B and a PhD in law at Edinburgh University, before moving to the United States to earn an LL.M at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago.
Hay, who strongly self-identified as a Scotsman, embarked upon a promising career in international law. After joining the New York Bar and working in that city, he relocated to then-rising economic powerhouse South Korea in 1990, joining leading Seoul firm Bae, Kim and Lee with a specialization in arbitration.
This writer first met Hay in Seoul in 1998. He was intense and intelligent; in 1999, 2000 and 2001, Asialaw magazine voted him one of the region’s leading lawyers.
“He was very dynamic, highly energetic and very positive… we nicknamed him ‘Mr. Laser’ because he would zoom in and hone his argument with precision,” recalled Shane Hong, a legal colleague. “He kind of prided himself on being like a New Yorker: He was an extremely hard worker.”
But Hay’s intensity was ameliorated by his sense of humor, and he dove deep into Seoul’s lively apres-work scene.
“At social events people would zero in on him,” said Hong, who became a close friend. ”He was handsome, debonair and elegant – he enjoyed his bachelorhood.”
He was also unusually generous. Matt Douma, a Canadian photographer in Seoul, met him when he suffered a work-related injury and was recommended Hay’s legal services. Hay not only dealt with Douma’s legal issues, he provided him with an envelope of cash to tide him over during his recovery.
Douma would become Hay’s best friend and his contact in the South when Hay moved North.
Over the border
In 1998, Hay made his first trip to North Korea.
They were heady days. The unprecedented “Sunshine Policy” of cross-border engagement was underway. Hay’s abiding passion was ignited – and Hong believes Hay needed a life mission larger than corporate arbitration.
“I think he became too big for the role he was doing,” Hong said. “He was a visionary.”
Hay delved deep into the terra incognito of North Korea – and cultivated excellent sources: He astounded this writer by predicting several landmark events.
Soon, it was not just an adventure: Hay went 100% North Korea. After the first inter-Korean summit of 2000, he established a consulting practice in Pyongyang in 2001. That expanded into law firm, Hay, Kalb and Associates – the only foreign law firm in Pyongyang.
The brand was a bit cheeky. “Kalb” was no person: It stood for “Korea Advisors on Law and Business.” The “associates” were assigned government lawyers from the Ministry of Foreign Trade. Hay was the only foreigner.
Hay’s policy was not to represent local or Chinese, leaving him with a tiny client base: A handful of adventurous businesses, mainly from Southeast Asia and Europe that attempted commerce with North Korea, as well as embassies and aid organizations based in Pyongyang.
Many were astonished to learn laws even existed in North Korea – and were more astonished to learn that Hay’s firm won court cases against domestic adversaries.
Hay praised North Korea’s laws and lawyers, as well as the citizenry (“absolutely wonderful”). He found Pyongyang, with its pastel color scheme more attractive than Seoul, and noted the booming economy of the showpiece capital, with its rising middle class, department stores and sophisticated restaurants.
Meanwhile, bigger cogs were turning. In 2008, a conservative administration took power on Seoul; a decade of the “Sunshine Policy” was overturned. Its flagship projects, the Mount Kumgang Tourism Zone and the Kaesong Industrial Zone, shut down.
Meanwhile, the regime pressed ahead with weapons of mass destruction. US-led international sanctions piled up. But in Pyongyang, there was a sense of unreality.
“Mike and I would sit in a hotel restaurant overlooking the river, and it would be completely calm,” recalled Nigel Cowie, a retired Briton who spent over a decade in the city engaged in finance, manufacturing and catering, and who retained Hay’s services. “You had no idea B52s were flying overheard, or sanctions were biting.”
North Korea had never been a commercial Mecca, but it became increasingly difficult to move money across its borders. It also became risky: companies and individuals came under the eye of the US Treasury Department.
Hay was not ideological, and was by no means a communist: He was, after all, a lawyer. He did, however strongly believe in engagement. As sanctions tightened, the pool of non-Chinese businesses that did commerce with North Korea – never a vast reservoir – dried up. Hay’s business became non-viable.
“Sanctions had produced such a climate of fear worldwide on the part of legitimate foreign businesses that they ran for the hills,” Hay told Asia Times. “It was no longer viable to stay in a country where incoming business had reached such a low level.”
He suspended operations in August 2016.
Hay spent a year resting and regrouping in France before returned to Seoul in 2018.
Meeting him that year, this writer noted that Hay had aged considerably. More tellingly, much of his prior confidence appeared to have dissipated. Always guarded when talking about North Korea, he was now cagier than ever. Despite his love of North Korea and its people, the stress of living under its system had taken a toll.
He appeared nervy and had adopted a habit of looking over his shoulder and speaking sotto voce. He even kept a paper shredder – “the best possible shredder!” according to Douma – in his apartment.
Many North Korean defectors have enormous difficulty adjusting to the South. Hay seemed to be undergoing something similar.
“When you have been so long in such difficult circumstances, where you have to be careful what you say to anybody, the safest way is not to say anything to anybody,” said Cowie. “It is not easy to come to a place where people speak without thinking.”
“Being in North Korea is a bit like being on an expressway and driving in first gear,” said a Hay acquaintance. “You become so skilled at this, you can’t let it go… even when you make a Facebook comment, you are conditioned to pore over it.”
Though he cultivated US government contacts, Hay confided his fear of being blacklisted by the US Treasury.
“Because you are doing something in North Korea, people think you are doing something illegal,” Cowie said. “When everyone thinks you are a criminal and hates you because of where you are, this causes stress that can be terminal.”
Still he was determined to return. “He was holding out hope,” said Douma. Hay maintained his combined apartment/office in the Pyongyang Hotel, where he had left his kilt and other possessions. “A Scotsman never leaves his kilt!” he liked to say.
There may have been a deeper lure. One friend says that Hay was lonely, and he confided to close friends that there had been a relationship in North Korea: A ministry staffer who worked with him.
In a country where it is illegal for natives to marry a foreigner, even a romantic attachment carries enormous risk. Asia Times cannot say how far the relationship progressed, but it came to an abrupt halt: The staffer was reassigned.
“If he had any regret, it was that he did not have a family,” said Douma. “He would constantly say he did not have a life partner.”
A liberal, pro-engagement government was back in power in Seoul. Earlier that year, North Korea had joined the Winter Olympics in South Korea and leader Kim Jong Un had exited international isolation to summit with China’s Xi Jinping, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and – most notably – US President Donald Trump.
Many in South Korea were agog. Would sanctions be lifted? Would cross-border travel and economic engagement follow? Could North Korean finally come in from the cold?
In this atmosphere, many wanted to speak to Hay about the business and legal climate north of the DMZ. Hired by leading Seoul law firm HMP as in-house North Korea expert, Hay embarked upon media interviews and speaking opportunities.
Still, he was not entirely comfortable. Seoul was not the city he remembered.
“When he first entered Korea, [Koreans] opened up their arms more to people like him, but the luster of the early 1990s had lessened: There was a sweeping change in the attitude toward foreigners,” Hong said. “I think it is not so much that Michael had changed, it was Korea that changed. He was kind of sucker-punched by it.”
And his Northern years spelt missed professional advancement in the South.
“He had been a hotshot and people who had not been as good as him were now powerful, wealthy individuals,” said Douma. “Mike did not choose that, but he had the chance to see what might have been.”
Worse, 2018’s possibilities abruptly dissipated. In February 2019, the Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, imploded. North Korea’s relations with the democratic world – including South Korea – slid back into deep freeze.
Hay was dismayed. “He’d had higher hopes than reality,” said Douma.
This writer noticed Hay appeared to be drinking significantly and had gained weight. More worryingly, friends noted missed calls, garbled messages, confusion about dates and meetings.
He was on medication for issues affecting his thyroid gland. Hay spent long periods in his apartment – sometimes sleeping for days on end, which may have been thyroid-related. He missed speaking opportunities and injured a leg, necessitating the use of a crutch.
In November 2019, his contract with HMP was not renewed.
On 26 February 2020, Hay walked out of his central Seoul apartment to buy soft drinks from a convenience store. Returning, he apparently weakened. Barely able to stand, he asked passersby to help him into the elevator. As he reached his floor, he collapsed. An ambulance was summoned. Hay passed away in hospital.
On hearing the news, Douma’s first reaction was to curse. But then a second thought came: “He is in a better place: He is not suffering anymore.”
Cause of death will not be known for weeks. But there was prior damage to physique and possibly to psyche.
Even in the 1990s, Hay had suffered from chronic fatigue, which sometimes laid him up for days. In Pyongyang, he was hospitalized at least twice – he kept a photograph of himself with medical staff, whose professionalism he praised. One sojourn was for fatigue and stress caused by overwork; the other for a serious ulcer.
Psychologically, Hay justified his presence in North Korea in the same way foreign embassies did: it was “a conscious decision to engage.” But he was a man of quiet but firm Catholic beliefs. How that squared with his dedication to an atheist nation with an appalling record of human rights abuse only he knew.
“The big losers are the people in both North and South Korea,” opined Douma. “They will have no Mike Hay when the road does open up.”
Yet Hay is not singular. He is one of several Western individuals whose deep engagement with the troubled nation have ended badly – even disastrously.
In 2019, Alex Sigley, an Australian pursuing advanced studies in Pyongyang was arrested, reportedly for posting (positive) social media and articles about the country. Deported, Asia Times understands that Sigley has now pivoted away entirely from North Korea engagement.
Canadian Michael Spavor, who ran investment tours and other projects in North Korea from China, has been in prison in China since December 2018. Accused by Beijing of breaching national security laws, he is widely seen as a victim of China-US animosities that has seen Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou being held under house arrest, pending extradition to the US, in Canada.
New Zealander Troy Collings, managing director of Young Pioneer Tours died from a heart attack a week after Hay’s passing, aged 33. Collings’ tour company had promoted budget travel in North Korea; one of its clients was the ill-fated US student Otto Warmbier, who died after entering a coma in a North Korean prison.
And there are others.
“A lot of those who try and work with North Korea in business and consulting get completely burnt,” said Chad O’Carroll, the Seoul-based founder of NK News. In addition to the cases above, O’Carroll cited “two or three others I am aware of” who are in “difficult circumstances.”
North Korea, O’Carroll mused, “…seems to have the impact of turning entrepreneurial passionate intelligent people into shadows of themselves.”
What lures people north of the DMZ? The possibility of being “the man to open up North Korea” is a strong attraction; what Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans calls “missionary zeal.”
“I think what attracts them initially is a sense that they can really do something and make a difference – it is an opportunity for great meaning in life,” Breen, formerly a North Korean consultant himself, told Asia Times.
Passionate attachment to a foreign people and/or place was the mark of colonial-era Britons such as James Brooke (‘The Raja of Sarawak”) and TE Lawrence (“of Arabia’). Today’s horizons are narrower, but isolated, insular North Korea offers a dual gravitational pull.
It is Asia’s last closed market: For anyone on the ground floor when – if – it opens up, rewards could be rich. And it is home to an enormously charming populace – warm, cautiously curious about strangers and blessed with a kind of gentle naivete that has disappeared elsewhere in millennial East Asia.
But global geopolitics and domestic dictatorship doom meaningful engagement.
“On the ground, because of the culture, you find people very open, respectful and willing, but once you start working there, you find yourself frustrated at every step, it is difficult to achieve anything,” Breen said. “Missionary zeal can only be satisfied if you are actually making a difference – but it all comes to nothing.”
In presentations, Hay advised, “Don’t bet the farm on North Korea!” – then joked that he had done exactly that. Perhaps Hay himself knew that he had embarked upon mission impossible – but could not let go.
“He was so wired,” said Douma. “Once he started his mind up, it was a driving force.”
Another friend suggests that Hay’s ‘Mr. Laser’ personality made his fate inevitable: Nobody could have talked him out of making North Korea his life’s work.
“He was trying to go where no individual had gone before – and what better way than North Korea?” Hong mused. “It would have been a greater tragedy from his perspective if he had never tried.”
Michael Hay was cremated in Seoul and his ashes have been returned to family. Asia Times understands that his office affairs in Pyongyang will be dealt with by the British embassy in that city. Unmarried and with no children, Hay is survived by six siblings.