SEOUL — At a glance, Julie Sa would seem a most unlikely candidate to become the economic czar of a special development zone in North Korea.
She is not only a U.S. citizen but also an avid churchgoer and registered Republican -- hardly the type usually praised by the arch-communist regime in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Although Chinese by ethnicity, she was born and educated in South Korea, which technically is still in a state of war with the North.
Yet this 53-year-old California businesswoman and former mayor of Fullerton is being widely touted in the South Korean media as the front-runner to head a special economic zone in Sinuiju, a Yalu River port.
"It almost seems like God is trying to make a joke, for me, a U.S. citizen who was born in South Korea, to be involved with this," Sa said in an interview Tuesday in Seoul, where she is holding meetings about the project.
Wishfully hailed as the future Hong Kong of North Korea, Sinuiju has been under discussion as a free-trade zone since 1997. Two years ago, the 50-square-mile project seemed poised to take off with the naming of Chinese flower-growing tycoon Yang Bin as director. But then Yang was arrested by the Chinese government and later sentenced to 18 years in prison for financial irregularities, leaving the Sinuiju project rudderless.
Sa said she had been in discussions with North Korean officials since Yang's precipitous downfall. She has recently submitted a detailed proposal outlining her ideas for a $20-billion overhaul of the derelict port city, but has not yet received confirmation that she has the post.
"Until Gen. Kim gives the OK, it was not official," said Sa, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Sa, whose full name is Shia Ri Xiang, is the daughter of Chinese emigres. She used to own an Orange County chain of fast-food restaurants called China Doll, but the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1994. She also spent about eight years in Fullerton politics, including a year and a half as mayor, but decided not to seek reelection to the City Council in 2000 when questions arose about whether she was a city resident.
Her work today is mainly in real estate. Her company, Golden Age World Inc., is building luxury homes in Chino Hills and commercial projects in China. She also does importing and exporting out of Dandong, the booming Chinese city that faces Sinuiju across the Yalu River.
Sa has been to North Korea only once -- a 1993 trip arranged because of her work in municipal government -- but she is well aware of how far the country lags behind China in development. Yet she says she is optimistic that the Chinese model for economic reform can bring rapid change to North Korea.
"I am sure that Kim Jong Il is very smart. He knows the country has to change," she said. "China took 20 years to get to where it is today. North Korea could reach that point in five years."
Yonhap, the semiofficial South Korean news service, has referred to Sa as the "governor-designate" for the Sinuiju special economic zone. A Hong Kong weekly, Yazhou Zhoukan, also cited Chinese sources as saying Sa's appointment was imminent. South Korean officials said, however, that they had not received confirmation.
Economists have expressed doubts about whether an ambitious project such as the autonomous zone in Sinuiju can take off while North Korea remains so diplomatically isolated. Listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorism-sponsoring nation, the North was not eligible for World Bank or International Monetary Fund money. The country has not shed its pariah status because of its avowed pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Sa acknowledged that the project probably could not advance until the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program was resolved.
"Of course, I support my president," Sa said, when asked about the Bush administration's view that North Korea should remain economically isolated until it abandoned nuclear ambitions.
She hopes that relations will improve to a point where the U.S. government can provide financial and logistical support for the Sinuiju project. One dream she has is for Sinuiju's bureaucrats, police and firefighters to receive training from counterparts in Fullerton.