How do you go one better than an ethnic Chinese Dutchman who made his fortune selling underwear and T-shirts to post-1989 Russia and orchids to Beijing and Shanghai yuppies? The answer is: an overseas Chinese born and educated in South Korea who made a million out of a Chinese fast-food chain near Disneyland and real-estate deals in Greater Los Angeles, and served as a Republican mayor of a city in Orange County. Kim Jong-il has chosen Julie Sa, diplomats say, to replace Yang Bin as chief executive of the special economic zone of Sinuiju, a project he began two years ago but had to freeze when Chinese police arrested Yang in October 2002, less than two weeks after his appointment. Pyongyang has not announced the decision and Ms Sa, whose Chinese name is Sha Rixiang, declines to confirm it. Ms Sa was born in 1950 of two Chinese parents in Pusan, South Korea, where she studied international politics at university and taught Putonghua at a Chinese school. In 1973, she went to California, where she opened the China Doll chain of Chinese fast-food restaurants and went into the real estate business. In 1992, she was elected a councillor for the city of Fullerton, a southern suburb of Los Angeles, and became mayor in 1995. On Monday, Ms Sa arrived in Seoul to brief politicians and business leaders on the development of the special zone and to find ways to drum up investment that will rely on capital from abroad, since North Korea has none. Mr Kim chose Ms Sa because she seems to have the attributes needed to launch Asia's most bizarre investment project - a free-market economic zone in the world's last Stalinist state that is short of goods, power, roads, telecommunications, law and capital, has no access to world money markets, and has been living on international handouts for the past 10 years. Against the advice of many of his father's top officials, Mr Kim was persuaded to accept the idea of a special zone in Sinuiju in 2002, as a way to save his declining regime. He wants to follow the model China chose in the 1980s, to create zones on its borders that were sealed off from the rest of the country, in which it could allow economic activity that was illegal elsewhere. In September 2002, North Korea's parliament passed the Basic Law of the Sinuiju Special Administrative Region, modelled on that of Hong Kong, giving it its own legal system for 50 years and its own executive and judicial powers. To the astonishment of the world, Mr Kim picked a Chinese businessman, Yang Bin, a Dutch citizen, to head the zone and he received his letter of appointment in Pyongyang that September - only to be arrested 10 days later in Shenyang; in July last year, he was sentenced to 18 years for fraud and illegal use of land. The project lay dormant for two years. But this time Mr Kim seems to have made his choice of chief executive with greater prudence. Last time, his big mistake was not seeking prior approval for his candidate from Beijing, his only ally in the outside world, whose provisions of oil, grain and other essential commodities have kept his regime alive since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This time he seems to have cleared his choice with Beijing, which is more comfortable having a non-Chinese citizen for this sensitive post. It does not want a mainlander doing quasi-diplomatic work it cannot control. Ms Sa speaks Putonghua, Korean and English and has made property investments in China. She is one of a dozen foreign advisers to the city of Rizhao, Shandong province, where her mother was born. Her father came from Dandong, the Chinese city across the Yalu River, the national border spanned by a bridge from Sinuiju, so she has family there and has visited it often. Ms Sa was first invited to North Korea in 1993 when she was given red-carpet treatment, stayed in an official guest house and met senior leaders. She is believed to have proposed to them the idea of a special zone on the Chinese model. She is acceptable to Beijing because she is a 'patriotic' overseas Chinese who has made investments on the mainland and helped the country's modernisation. As an ethnic Chinese, she will be more willing to listen to Beijing. Chinese policy support, capital and technology are essential to the success of the project. For Mr Kim, the advantage of Ms Sa is that she lived more than 20 years in South Korea and has experience, if limited, of politics and international business, and is willing to take on what appears to be a 'mission impossible'. She will need all her personal, professional and linguistic skills to persuade investors from China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and elsewhere to put money into Sinuiju. 'The biggest problem for the Sinuiju zone is that of capital,' Ms Sa reportedly told a South Korean newspaper. 'It will need US$20 billion over the next five years. I hope to raise this money from South Korea, Japan and overseas Koreans. After the Korean war, the government concentrated on heavy industry and put much of it in mountainous areas and caves. Because it is centred on light industry, the economy of Sinuiju is shrinking.' With 300,000 people, Sinuiju resembles a Chinese city in the 1970s: its streets are dark at night because of power cuts, essential goods are rationed, and its people are dressed in drab clothes. Its gloom and poverty contrast sharply with the bright lights and consumer bounty of Dandong. Yang's plan was to demolish much of the existing city and move the population to new homes on the other side of a wall that would separate the zone from the rest of North Korea. In the vacated space, he planned to build a new city similar to Shenzhen, with industrial zones and commercial, tourist and entertainment areas. Ms Sa's vision will likely be less costly and ambitious. During the past two years, China and North Korea have worked more closely together on the issue and the zone has Beijing's backing. It has been encouraging Chinese firms to invest in North Korea, with limited success. In September 2002, Panda Electronics, a manufacturer of colour televisions in Nanjing, started a joint venture in Pyongyang, producing computers as sole provider to government departments. The Shenyang Wujin Group has also joined with a North Korean trading firm to provide engine oil for cars.