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In Pyongyang, the International Fair is mainly Chinese

Ⓒ AFP – Ed JONES – | North Koreans test a masseur at 13th International Fair in Pyongyang, September 25, 2017

With two thirds of North Korean exhibitors, and the remaining companies coming from almost all of China, the 13th Pyongyang International Fair, which opened on Monday, bears a bad name.

The lack of diversity in the origin of the participants in this international trade event is an illustration of the increasing isolation of North Korea, which has just been hit by an eighth round of Security Council sanctions of ONU.

The latest resolution, which was put in place two weeks ago to push Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and ballistic programs, prohibits, with a few exceptions, all joint ventures with North Korean companies, and requires that they exist within 120 days .

The only European company present is the Italian shipping company OTIM, which in 2001 was the first carrier of the European Union to open an office in Pyongyang.

Ⓒ AFP – Ed JONES – | A visitor leaves the International Fair in Pyongyang, September 25, 2017

The business was good at the start, remembers the president of OTIM Mario Carniglia, but “the sanctions have arrived and things have become more and more difficult”.

Today, the company focuses on delivering the humanitarian aid shipped through the UN and EU programs. Its commercial freight activity is now “practically nil”.

Among the few North Korean products that are still exported to Europe, Carniglia points out, are accordion spare parts. A popular instrument in the North.

– Aleppo soap –

“But only spare parts because an entire accordion is considered a luxury product and can not be imported from North Korea into Europe,” he said.

Ⓒ AFP – Ed JONES – | Waiting before the opening of the 13th International Fair in Pyongyang, September 25, 2017

Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, told AFP that unlike previous years, no Russian companies were present: “Maybe they are not interested in this market.”

The organizers say that 253 exhibitors are participating in this fair in the suburbs of Pyongyang, including 81 foreigners.

One of the best placed, near the entrance, is the official Syrian stand, which displays a small selection of Aghabani fabrics, used mainly to make damask embroidered tablecloths, and Aleppo soap bars.

Cuba and Indonesia are the only two other countries with an official booth.

Ⓒ AFP – Ed JONES – | A saleswoman presents a waffle maker at the International Fair in Pyongyang, September 25, 2017

For their part, most Chinese enterprises are either public enterprises with infrastructure projects or traders selling appliances to private individuals, rather than manufacturers seeking to conclude long-term contracts with North Korean partners .

Li Likun, of the Shenyang Xiangbo Trading Company, offers massage machines in particular.

This is his fifth or sixth visit, “he said,” Every time I come, it gets better and better. ”

– ‘Challenge for the government’ –

Since Kim Jong-Un came to power in late 2011, North Korea increasingly tolerates private initiatives and allows the proliferation of small entrepreneurs who trade in food or goods from China.

Ⓒ AFP – Ed JONES – | A man tries a karaoke at the International Fair in Pyongyang, September 25, 2017

A relative “liberalization” that was imposed because of the catastrophic deficiencies of the regime during the famine of the late 1990s.

Pyongyang does not publish any official statistics, but the South Korean central bank believes that the economy of the North registered its strongest growth in 176 years in 17 years due in particular to an increase in its exports, despite the sanctions international.

For the time being, business is going “well,” described in the fairways Kim Kum-Ran Fair, a North Korean participant. “But it’s going to get tough.”

“If only the Americans stopped torturing us with their unnecessary sanctions and recognized us as a nuclear state,” he dreams. “Trade would be free and there would be peace in the world”.

According to the South Korea-based Korean Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), North Korea’s exports last year amounted to US $ 2.8 billion and imports to US $ 3.8 billion, 7 billions. China alone accounts for 90% of these exchanges.

“Trade with China, of course, is continuing,” says Peter Ross, who works for a European Union development program in Pyongyang.

The sanctions, he said, however, “make things more difficult for this country”, and in particular because the population expects an improvement of its situation.

“It’s a challenge for the government,” he said.

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