North Korea aficionado Roger Barrett is simmering with anger as he takes his seat in a hotel-foyer bar in Beijing. He's become increasingly wary of journalists of late - this one in particular. Despite his obvious fury, however, he is looking much improved from a few days ago. Then, standing behind the customs barrier at Pyongyang International Airport in the grey 6am light, Barrett, a former British army officer and graduate from the elite Royal Sandhurst Military Academy, looked anything but. He was rumpled and looked as if he'd just spent all night in a dimly lit, smoky basement bar in a whacky frontier town negotiating cash deals and the release of hostages. As it happened, that's exactly how the venture capitalist had spent the night, the last of a bizarre business-golfing long weekend to North Korea. BARRETT RUNS THE Beijing-based Korea Business Consultants, a small company that seeks to do business with Kim Jong-il's defiant nuclear outpost. He recently took a small group of, mainly British, businessmen to North Korea for the First Business-Golf Challenge - just two weeks after the country's underground atom-bomb test of October 9. The four-day trip was designed to allow the foreign investors to hobnob and do deals with the 'Dear Leader's' small band of freemarket entrepreneurs: those mandarins charged with bringing in much-needed investment to prop up the ailing economy. The pressure on Barrett was immense; obtaining visas to a harsh, post-Stalinist, nuclear-capable, axis-of-evil member would be enough to send a lesser man to the psychologist couch. Arranging a weekend that included the most potent symbol of capitalism - a networking game of golf - had been far more tricky. Many old North Korean hands say you have to possess a certain kind of lunacy to deal in any way with the communist throwback nation. They say it is not unusual to be granted your visa just an hour or two before the departure of one of the three weekly flights from Beijing to Pyongyang - the only air link into North Korea. Yet, as the world ganged up on Kim and threatened more sanctions - and as aid agencies warned of a looming humanitarian disaster - Barrett pulled off the impossible. He led an assorted, merry band of businessmen seeking new frontiers and contacts into a country that offers a highly disciplined, skilled workforce and lower wages than China. The trip went well, all things considered, and he arrived back at his Beijing office relieved that his latest venture had turned out - in his eyes, at least - to be a resounding success. Then the phone rang. On the end of the line was a member of the business delegation, who was now exposing himself as a reporter. My fall from grace was rapid. Journalists are banned from travelling to the country independently. The only way in for the media is by rare invitation and even then, the few days allowed follow a strictly controlled propaganda programme. Anyone operating tours to the country has to strictly vet paying customers to make sure they are not journalists, spies or saboteurs. However, for three weeks or more, Barrett had been fooled into believing a reporter was a representative of an exceptionally wealthy British entrepreneur looking for an adventurous toe-dip into the fledgling, stuttering, sanction-struck, North Korean market. Barrett had his suspicions, he says, but in his haste to fill the numbers for his golfing weekend, he let his guard slip. I spent four days meeting top business leaders from the heart of the Pyongyang government, extracting the views of western diplomats and foreign aid workers, visiting factories, talking to ordinary North Koreans - and playing golf at the exclusive Pyongyang Golf Club. It was unprecedented, timely access and Barrett was made to look a fool. And he is 'dreading the response' from his North Korean hosts following his huge public-relations cock-up. 'I haven't heard anything from them. They've gone very quiet,' says the 52-year-old, who has spent the past 20 years in Asia, with spells in South Korea and Hong Kong. 'I hate making mistakes - and being cheated. My level of trust in human nature has gone down in the last two years, since my mother died. The world seems more short term, more selfish and more greedy.' Unfortunately for Barrett, he courts the media as much as they court him. 'The media coverage about North Korea is generally very unbalanced. That's why I engage the media - and try to portray the positive side of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]. This makes for fairer coverage,' he argues. Barrett is well known among Asia's press corps as a reliable, always-available, knowledgeable, quotable source on a country that exists behind a wall of secrecy. 'He's always able to speak with authority, at length and with clarity on the country,' says one senior correspondent for a leading British newspaper. To others, he is a sinister character who must be in the pay of the Pyongyang government, as the nation's western PR man; always ready and willing to defend the nation against the western media's 'demonisation'. 'Of course I'm not in the pay of the government,' snaps Barrett. 'People expressed similar surprise and scepticism when I first came to set up trade shows in Beijing and Shanghai in 1983.' A more generous view is that he is obsessed with North Korea and this blurs his judgment of the oppressive communist regime. 'I'm focused. I like a challenge. I don't give up easily or suffer fools,' says Barrett, who describes himself as a straight-talking, honest (English) northerner with a passion for getting out to new frontiers and 'just doing it'. Barrett is back to his effervescent self, talking about business and North Korea - and to the media. After his initial anger at being duped, he agreed to discuss, on the record, why he promotes Kim's harsh regime - one run by a despotic eccentric who keeps most of his 23 million subjects in a confused state of patriotism, pride, fear, bewilderment and poverty by crib-to-coffin brainwashing. 'I've never met met Kim Jong-il,' says Barrett, who has, since 1998, led 29 business missions to North Korea. 'But if I did meet him, I would say, 'It's a great honour to meet you - a pleasure in itself.' This is what the Swedish prime minister and [former US secretary of state] Madeleine Albright said to him,' he says. Barrett says he fell head over heels in fascination with the country following a visit in the mid 1990s. 'A friend in Hong Kong said you had not travelled until you'd been to North Korea. He was right.' Lured by the country's abundant gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper deposits, Barrett and some business associates spotted the potential in establishing trading links between North Korea and booming neighbour China, and elsewhere. He helped create a North Korean 'mini-chamber of commerce' in late 1998 with 10 founding members, 'all of whom are still associated as customers or partners'. 'We then changed our name to Korea Business Consultants in March 2002, which luckily coincided with North Korea's economic reforms of April 2002,' he explains. Business consultancy is one of Barrett's jobs. He is also a gold miner and has a stake in the Kumsan - 'Gold Mountain' in Korean - gold-mining company, a joint venture with the government. 'This continues to be our leading, and shining, success story,' he says, delighting in showing photos of himself with a group of North Korean businessmen. In them, a smiling Barrett is standing up preparing to close a black briefcase full of what look like gold nuggets. 'That's how you get your money out,' he jokes. 'We introduced new Asian investors to the joint venture in 2002, to buy a new plant, which we then designed and shipped from Australia in 2003. It was commissioned in 2004 and we expect to have the investment fully repaid by mid-2007.' The method Kumsan uses to go about its business is strip-mining, which employs the chemical sodium cyanide to erode the rock from around gold deposits. Sodium cyanide is banned under UN sanctions 'but you can get it easily enough', a foreign businessman told me during our round of golf at the Pyongyang Golf Club. Wherever there are sanctions, there are corrupt customs and other officials, and in this case, it's the Russians and Chinese who can ensure a steady supply makes it across the border. So with a buck or two here and there, it's business as usual for most North Korean investors. Sanctions have become more of an annoyance to be countered than the barrier to all business Washington and the rest of the world had hoped. 'We have had a single focus on North Korea business for a full seven years. Our network of contacts and partners has steadily grown, as has our understanding of the business and trade environment and the fluctuating perceptions on the investment climate in North Korea,' adds Barrett. To Barrett and others like him, North Korea is far from the land of mad tyrants who gamble with the lives of their oppressed subjects and use nuclear brinkmanship to blackmail the world. On the contrary, they believe North Korea is on the verge of becoming the next Asian tiger. A recent Citigroup report concluded: 'North Korea's economic reforms are probably broadly comparable to those in China in the mid- to late-1980s. In some areas, such as foreign-exchange-rate policy, North Korea is probably already beyond the China of the early 1990s. Actual progress in economic reforms has been way beyond our expectations.' Barrett nods in agreement. North Korea 'has absolutely the capabilities to take off like South Korea' and rocket into capitalism, he says. 'We provide the 'three I's' - information, introductions and investments,' Barrett says, adding that more than 300 companies and organisations, including many embassies, subscribe to his Korea Business Newsletter. 'It's the first and only monthly e-newsletter that provides information and insight on business-related activity in Korea. It helps to provide a good balance to an overwhelmingly negative western-led media,' he says. 'We have done a lot of promotions, mainly to several chambers of commerce, over the last few years in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Seoul. It's an awareness programme called Doing Business in North Korea.' The promo roadshow, says Barrett, will hopefully continue 'now that the six-party talks [to find a peaceful solution to concerns raised by Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions] are due to start again'. He has had some other 'notable successes', in the exhibitions, transportation and logistics sectors, 'and of course our main verticals - mining and manufacturing'. He has a direct feed into the heart of Pyongyang politics - the recent delegation was taken to Kim Il-sung Square and the Ministry of Foreign Trade. There, we were given a PowerPoint presentation by the vice-president of the Korea Chambers of Commerce, Ri Song-un, and his deputies - all dressed in sharp, tailored business suits - on the merits of doing business with the nuclear North. Ri pointed out the various financial breaks available under the country's investment laws and unveiled an import wish-list: crude oil, sugar, coke, rubber and vehicles. He said that although the good socialist regime of Kim provided its subjects with almost everything, there was still a need for consumer goods, such as clothes and 'other daily necessities'. 'Be brave and invest,' Ri beseeched the visiting delegation. 'From a business point of view, this is a good time to be investing. We have always been under sanctions. There has been nothing special done on our part [to warrant them].' Ri gave approval for the delegation to visit the Pyingjin Bicycle Factory, a joint venture with a Chinese company. However, on arrival, we found the factory idle due to power cuts. 'The 100-strong workforce has been sent to the fields to help with the harvest,' the manager said. The venture capitalists then visited a modern glass factory, situated about 100km south of the capital. The Taean Friendship Glass Factory was a development-aid present from China and was opened by Kim a year ago. Managed by Chinese engineers and employing 900 North Koreans, some 60 per cent of its 'excess' output was exported to China to fuel the mighty neighbour's building boom, the factory's manageress said. 'What a silly world we live in,' mused a member of the delegation as we set off for a gala dinner. That night, the visitors supped imported Argentinean wine and Heineken beer - perhaps the last before sanctions on luxury items bite - and dined on grey mullet. Such nourishment is unimaginable to 99 per cent of the population but visiting businessmen bearing potential investment cash are given the red-carpet treatment. 'The first question most businessmen ask me is: 'Can we get our money out,'' says Barrett. 'It is surprisingly easy to repatriate your profits out of North Korea ... Well, it is much easier than [from] many Northeast Asian countries. We work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Trade, which provides the investment laws that guarantee profit repatriation.' Barrett cites Daedong Credit Bank, a 70 per cent British- and European-held joint venture and North Korea's first foreign-owned financial institution. The bank serves foreign companies and has accounts at Banco Delta Asia, the Macau-based bank that had its assets frozen by Washington last year. 'The financial sanctions imposed by the US Treasury during the last round of six-party talks, in September 2005, have caused a lot of problems for legitimate businesses like us,' says Barrett. 'They have revealed nothing untoward and we look forward to reading the report due on the investigations so that our legitimate customers can get their money back.' Barrett claims serious business people see through the demonisation of North Korea by the western media and that the number of inquiries his company has been receiving in these 'testing times' has 'become more serious'. 'The consistent message in the North Korean media to their people since 2003 has been to build 'a great powerful and prosperous nation'. Economic reforms from 2002 have been designed to introduce market mechanisms with socialist characteristics, as well as provide a platform from which to integrate more closely with the international economy. 'They are hungry for business and economic growth - they need it. Everyone needs to increase their exports to be able to pay for imports,' says Barrett. Does he think such developments signal a change in the thinking of the leadership? Are rumours of reformers at the top jostling for position true? Barrett pauses and says: 'The country and the government are far more cohesive and united in these difficult times, as a homogeneous nation, than the foreign media makes them out to be. I think they are united in relative adversity and have rallied as survivors. 'Continuous economic development is the goal of every government - including the DPRK. The necessary change of thinking comes from the enforced shift away from the Soviet trading bloc - based mainly on barter trade - which collapsed at the end of the 1980s. Throughout the 90s, North Korea needed to find ways of marketing its products and itself. This is not so easy for a 'hermit kingdom'. 'I first saw the title 'marketing manager' on a North Korean businessman's card in 2000. And I increasingly see it nowadays. They are coming to understand the dynamics of world business. 'My bet is that 10 years from now, it is North Korea that will be following China and Vietnam into the WTO,' he says. 'But sanctions will not help. With the onset of winter, there will be unnecessary hardships. Blanket boycotts such as that from Japan are purely political and really show little or no consideration for people's livelihoods. And anyone who says that the imposition of financial sanctions is not going to hurt the people is lying. Sanctions will only have a negative effect on the ordinary North Korean people.' Some would say North Korea has brought such strife upon itself. Does Barrett think Kim was right to test the bomb and that North Korea has the right, as a responsible nation, to own one? 'I think nuclear bombs are the wrong way for the world to go. But there is so much hypocrisy over the issue, and over India, Pakistan and Israel's possession ... that it has become very clouded,' he says. Barrett claims that, 'since 2002, [the US] has behaved so arrogantly over their dictating what the Koreans must do. They do so without offering anything at all in return. They just demand that North Korea gives up everything in a so-called 'complete verifiable irreversible dismantlement' manner,' he says sarcastically. 'The Koreans have been needled and feel insulted and threatened. So I understand their response. I don't condone it; but the 'world diplomacy' that led up to this lacked sincerity. The majority of the world has been telegraphed the message that North Korea is the aggressor. But having been to communist Pyongyang, as a capitalist, I do not see it that way.' But North Korea is seen as a harsh oppressive regime. 'The Koreans are traditionally well-disciplined and hard-working people. You have to remember South Korea was a military dictatorship until 1992. I have seen a relaxation in the North over the years,' he counters. ON THE LAST NIGHT of the recent business mission to Pyongyang, Barrett entered the bar of the hauntingly near-empty hotel in which his delegation was staying and announced, after a lengthy preamble, that he'd run into a 'tricky problem'. He told the stunned visitors that their hosts - a government-backed sport-marketing company - were in possession of their passports and air tickets, and were holding them hostage until Barrett stumped up the cash owed for the golfing tournament. He was being charged for the original 40 or so golfers he had promised for the First Business-Golf Challenge. Although the numbers had dwindled as a result of the bomb test, he was told he would still have to pay the full price. He was short of US$2,500. Could anyone help, he asked his business delegates. He had money in North Korea, he pleaded, but he could not get to it until the owner of the bank started work at 9am: the departure time of their flight back to Beijing. One member of the delegation had won US$300 in the empty Pyongyang Casino, in the basement of the hotel, earlier that night and offered that for starters. Thankfully, Barrett's networking skills paid off and he was, at 5.30am on that cold dark morning, able to count on his Pyongyang connections. In the empty marble expanse of the hotel foyer, he bumped into 'a friend' - someone willing to lend him US$2,000 on the spot and get him and his customers 'out of jail'. With the deal done and with passports and air tickets in hand, a relieved Barrett enthused: 'It's the same here as anywhere in business; it's all about connections - about who you know.'