Far Out, Far East: Meet North Korea's Biggest Booster In Taiwan
"Taiwanese would laugh at the leader worship of the North Koreans, but wasn't that what we did in the days of Chiang Kai-shek?"
TAIPEI — On the evening of April 15, a crowd of nearly 100 people eagerly swarmed inside an ordinary building in Taipei's Ximending neighborhood. The occasion? The "Sun Festival", which commemorates the birthday of the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, and one of the most important holidays each year.
The venue was decorated in a North Korean style, with DPRK flags and photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il visible all around, while the tables displayed North Korean-made noodles, biscuits, tins, soaps, cigarettes and toy rifles.
Most attendees were in their 20s and 30s, with males outnumbering females by about 2-to-1. There were couples, friends and even a family with children. Everyone who attended received a small North Korean flag, two slices of Korean fried green bean cake on a paper plate and a portion of Korean seaweed rice rolls.
In addition to the "North Korean Lifestyle Exhibition" as a selling point, the event also featured a speaker recounting his travels to the country. And just before the talk began, the speaker invited all participants to stand up, played the North Korean national anthem and then led them in a bow to the statue of Kim Il Sung.
Hung Hao, the organizer for this event, is also the manager of the Facebook page "DPRK Business News." The page now has more than 33,000 followers, but Hung's business is more than that: on his bilingual business cards, he details the other services that include investment opportunities in the DPRK, business missions and contacts, business information and consultation, the import and export of DPRK goods from Taiwan.
His choice of words is also notable, insisting there is only “Korea” and “South Korea”; when referring to current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he always adds the words "Grand Marshal."
Hung's connection to North Korea began with a trip to the country, and when he first went there in 2016, he found that the easiest way to make contact in North Korea is to start with a tour guide. “Those who can work as tour guides in North Korea have good family origins, and their families are basically senior members of the party and government," he said. "If you ask, the tour guide will help you make connections and reveal business opportunities.”
After a few trips to North Korea, he set up the fan page in 2018 to "promote" the country to Taiwanese readers.
Born in 1979, Hung said he had lived through the end of martial law in Taiwan, so he could understand what the North Koreans were thinking.
"Some Taiwanese would laugh at the leader worship of the North Koreans, but wasn't that what we did in the days of Chiang Kai-shek?," he noted. "The North Koreans don't have access to the enemy's cultural products and it's difficult to go abroad – wasn't that how Taiwan used to be?"
Why are they having such a good time? The war is not over yet.
He argues that before judging North Korea, the outside world must realize one thing: "Since the 1953 truce, there has been no formal truce between North Korea and South Korea, there is still a state of siege. Hence, the North Koreans will think, "Why are the South Koreans and the Taiwanese having such a good time when the war is not yet over?”
Hung Hao believes that democracy and freedom must ultimately be based on national security — he notes that if there is a war with China, freedom would be curtailed in Taiwan very quickly, as it is in the case of North Korea.
After he began to understand North Korea, Hung gradually felt that "North Korea is very much like the "red Taiwan", and that "in the old Cold War system, Taiwan and North Korea were actually in the same position, but reversed from different camps.”
Asked if he is worried that he is being manipulated by the intelligence services as a quasi-propagandist for North Korea, Hung replied, “Why should I be worried? North Korea may be a friend of China, but it's not an enemy of Taiwan.”
After the fan page was set up, the first person to come to him was not a Taiwanese national security officer, but the South Korean representative office in Taiwan, who wanted to know why he was in North Korea. "I knew I had to avoid contact with them. If you don't have that political mindset, you shouldn't do business with North Korea.”
Trade and culture
DPRK Business News includes information from the North Korean Central News Agency and the Pyongyang Daily News, but Hung says he knows how to “keep a sense of proportion” and “be sensitive.”
"I know exactly what my job is: to balance the story and then rebut fake news with facts,” he says.
But what he calls "balanced reporting" is more like acting as a semi-official sounding board for North Korea. “I don't do balanced reporting myself as I am pro-North Korea. So when I say "balanced reporting," I am looking at the bigger picture: there are too many negative stories about North Korea in Taiwan, so if I add a positive one, the readers can get more perspectives, isn't that a balanced story for the Taiwanese audience?"
Since the outbreak of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, his fan page has rarely touched on the war, for one simple reason – "Taiwanese people don't like reading about it," he says. "Also, our mission is to promote North Korean trade and culture, and political articles are not a priority.”
People in Taipei gathered for the Sun Festival", which commemorates the birthday of the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung
The popularity of DPRK Business News is not only due to Taiwanese readers’ curiosity about North Korea, but also sometimes reflects people's interest in alternative systems and "non-Western mainstream" narratives, and even allows people to project their own dissatisfaction with the current situation.
After an article about an amusement park in Pyongyang, mentioning that entry tickets cost only 1,600 Korean won (about $0.25), one reader commented under the post, "Great President Kim... unlike those capitalists who bully people everywhere.”
Posts about housing policy in North Korea garner a lot of attention, with Taiwanese and even Hong Kong readers facing high property prices and difficulties in buying a home. "Do you know how long North Koreans take their lunch break? Two hours!," he said. "While a Hong Kong friend told me that his lunch break is only 20 minutes."
Sometimes, Hung Hao’s posts also get attention from mainland China readers, who note North Korea's social security system and more rational approach to COVID restrictions: "I am ashamed to see Shanghai being inferior to North Korea," wrote one Chinese reader.
Brotherhood and betrayal
The truth is that Taiwan's trade relations with North Korea have been warmer than most people think. Due to the Cold War world order, relations between Taiwan and South Korea were better up until 1990, and there was little to no interaction with North Korea.
However, after the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and South Korea in 1992, the relationship between Taiwan and South Korea, which had been hailed as a "brotherhood," took an immediate turn for the worse; and Taiwan, feeling "betrayed" by South Korea, immediately began to explore the possibility of contact with Pyongyang. When China, a permanent member in UN's Security Council, voted in favor of the 2017 sanctions resolution, North Korea began to show goodwill towards Taiwan as a form of retaliation to Beijing.
According to the Taiwan Customs Service, trade between Taiwan and the DPRK peaked in 2012 and since 2011, the DPRK has been "outflanking" Taiwan, culminating in a trade surplus of almost $37 million in 2014, making Taiwan a major source of foreign exchange for North Korea.
What's a true democracy?
According to the data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (KOTRA), cited by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Taiwan was even the fifth largest export market for North Korea in 2016, which shows that Taiwan's exports to the DPRK are mainly chemicals and textiles, while the DPRK's exports to Taiwan are mainly minerals, metals and plant products.
If Taiwan got too close to North Korea, it would probably lose U.S. support.
However, this scenario changed in 2017: in September of that year, the Taiwanese government decided to follow up on the UN Security Council's sanctions resolution by announcing a total ban on bilateral trade with North Korea. Pamela Kennedy, a researcher at the Stimson Center, a US think tank, said that Taiwan's decision made sense because if it got too close to North Korea, it would probably lose U.S. support.
In March 2021, the New York Times published an investigative report that a Taiwan-based shipping company was still helping North Korea transport oil after the UN imposed sanctions on the country, once again bringing to the surface the hidden relationship between Taiwan and North Korea.
Hung Hao says that apart from tourism and trade, sports and medical care are also important channels of exchange between Taiwan and the DPRK. On the whole, Hung says that he wants to portray 'the real North Korea, not the one demonized by the West."
He concludes by posing a question: "Would you say that Taiwan is a true democracy? This is something that most Taiwanese don't think about: just like mainlanders don't think they're undemocratic, so what's the difference?”