North Korea may be one of the world’s most reclusive countries, but one innovative non-governmental organisation has been building bridges to the hermit kingdom by creating training opportunities for its young professionals and future leaders in the areas of business, economics and law. Since 2009, Singapore-based Choson Exchange has been bringing business trainers to conduct workshops in North Korea and young North Koreans to Singapore on internships. Founder Geoffrey See and executive director Andray Abrahamian tell Shanghaiist how Choson Exchange came about and what they’re doing in North Korea today.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with us. First tell us something about yourselves?
GEOFFREY: I was born in Singapore, and studied in the United States and China for my Bachelors and Masters. I have no ethnic ties to Korea, and took an interest in the issue through accidental events and a series of bad decisions (such as quitting a well-paying consulting job at Bain to work at Choson Exchange). My first exposure to the North Korean issue came from attending an intergovernmental conference, ironically, in South Korea in 2005. I knew almost nothing about the Korean peninsula then. In South Korea, I met people from divided families and took an interest in inter-Korean issues.
There was frustration among the people I met in Seoul that they could do so little to interact with North Koreans and influence their lives, so I count myself as truly fortunate to be able to help in what small ways I can to shape individuals in North Korea through our programs.
ANDRAY: I visited the DMZ in 2003 and really couldn’t believe it. I still can’t – that cousins are still staring across an imaginary line on the ground after nearly 70 years. This inspired an MA then a Phd in International Relations. I have a weird affection for Korea, even though I dislike K-pop and dramas. I want to see both Koreas reconcile and cooperate. I feel like working at Choson Exchange is small contribution towards that goal.
Geoffrey, tell us a bit more about how you came to found Choson Exchange. What would you say is its raison d’etre?
G: Having been involved in the North Korean issue from the margins after 2005, I wanted to see what North Korea was like and how people there think. Could people truly be so brainwashed? That was my thinking before I visited the country. As a student of business and economics, I imagined people would sneer at my field of studies. I signed up for a tour in 2007.
Instead, one of my guides was a university student who joined our group to practise her English. She was really interested in economics, and wanted to go into business to prove that women in her country can also be great business leaders in a field dominated by men. Before I left, her one request was whether I could provide her with an economics textbook the next time I visited. Her personal aspiration, and thirst for knowledge, challenged my preconceptions of North Korean individuals.
I never saw her again. But her words inspired me to start Choson Exchange – a volunteer-driven organization to provide economics, business and legal knowledge in a country starved of opportunities for such training. Our job was to find talents like my guide, and provide them with unprecedented opportunities to learn. In fact, her strong personal ambition became a guiding force for our programs – when we select people from our in-country workshops for overseas programs, we always asked people what their dream is. The most successful candidates tend to have ambitious and clear goals.
Andray Abrahamian (left) and Geoffrey See of Choson Exchange
Andray, how did you come into the picture?
A: At the nadir of my Phd, as I wondered what I was doing and what the point was, someone introduced Geoffrey as he was pulling some early threads together for Choson Exchange. It sounded like exactly the kind of project I thought should be happening, so I started volunteering.
What are some of your ongoing programmes at Choson Exchange?
A: We have a couple main tracks, one focused more on economic policy issues, such as inflation or commercial lending and one focused more on business skills, especially for small enterprises. Surprisingly, those exist! We tend to take our volunteer workshop leaders into North Korea to run short programs – less than a week – and use those periods to interview candidates to bring down to Singapore for longer programs.
You must have been asked this a million times: Is it ethical to visit North Korea?
A: It depends what you go there to do. Are you going to run guns? Then, no. I guess for non-profits like us running workshops on economic policy or entrepreneurship, or for tourists, the common accusation is that one ‘is propping up the system by spending money in the country, often thrown out by people who would prefer North Korea remains isolated. But really the amount of money you spend as a visitor is peanuts, especially considering the good one does by exposing Koreans to new ideas and broadening their horizons. We’ve had people come as volunteers with us who’ve said that they could never justify going as a tourist, but even tourists can challenge stereotypes that have been trained into people.
As Tad Farrell argues in an article of yours from last year, tourists probably contribute “0.001% of the sum total of the DPRK GDP”. This isn’t Thailand. We spend about the same amount as a tour group – just hotels, transportation, translation. That’s very cheap for the impact we have.
Finally, the system there is more fragmented than we tend to think. We often assume everything gets hoovered up into a central ‘regime coffer’, but it isn’t like that.
Overall, if you want to see a more open, integrated North Korea, you have to favor more people-to-people exchanges. I think when you look at other countries in this region that were once closed, but gradually opened up to people and investment, you’d have to say that they end up better off than they had once been.
A spanking new residential compound in Pyongyang’s Mansudae district. See more pictures of modern-day Pyongyang by Shanghai-based writer and photographer Nils Weisensee here.
You’ve been in and out of North Korea so many times. Tell us what changes you’ve observed in the business environment over that time.
ANDRAY: I’ve been 15 times since 2010. Trips have been as little as 3 days and as long as 10. At the macro-level there has been a gradual shift towards greater concern with economic issues – they’ve experimented with legal changes, SEZs and management rules. Grassroots, trends from before in which people depend on markets to survive and flourish have continued. The area we focus on, which is small and medium sized businesses, is also growing, despite it still being a very difficult environment.
GEOFFREY: The biggest change is in the consumer culture. When I first went to North Korea in 2007, shops sold a limited range of goods. Now, shops sell a lot more products, with far greater diversity, and locally-made consumer goods that are of an acceptable quality are increasingly prevalent. Among younger people, business culture is also more transparent, and people who have had exposure overseas are a lot easier to work with and trust.
Shanghaiist’s managing editor Kenneth Tan recently visited North Korea with a group of Shanghai-based entrepreneurs to deliver business workshops in Pyongyang with Choson Exchange. Check out his pictures here.
A: The headline “Give Dennis Rodman a Break” was chosen by an editor and wasn’t really what that piece argued at all. My title was “Rodman in Pyongyang IV: The Rodmaning”, which was supposed to highlight the absurd theater of it all. That was the point: it was basically pointless and all the attention heaped on it was a waste of time. I don’t know if Pyongyang would have him back, but I think he’s learned that its more trouble than he needs.
The news about male students in North Korea ordered to have the Kim Jong-Un hairstyle. True? Not true?
A: Not true. Basically, in the global info-sphere, North Korea fulfills three roles: scary military stuff, human rights and weirdness. There is kind of a system in which there are a few news sites with networks in the country (necessarily anonymous) or South Korean newspapers (no need for confirmation of stories or attribution) who will happily print outlandish things. Sometimes there is a grain of truth to them, sometimes they are totally made up. And because its the DPRK, we all get a laugh, no one needs to check and it all get forgotten.
In fact, Shanghaiist was a big contributor to one of these things by getting in early on one of such rumor, which was then picked up by NBC, the NYT Magazine and hosts of others! In 2011, there was supposedly a “happiness index” published in the DPRK that ranked itself no. 2 after China, which held the top spot. This index was culled from a Chinese language website and exploded over the English language web in a cycle of blogs and news websites citing each other. No Korean language website was ever referenced, nor did the story appear in official DPRK media. In fact, another hint to its fabricated nature is the term “美帝囯”, or “American Empire”, which North Korea tends not to use in news broadcasts.
So Jang Song Taek eaten by dogs, North Korea claiming to have discovered unicorns, Kim Jong Il shooting 18 holes-in-one…these tend to be basically untrue.
North Korea has recently announced 14 new Special Economic Zones — and that’s on top of the existing four. Are they for real this time?
A: “For real”…they are legal entities, if that’s what you mean. If you mean, “will they be 14 Shenzhens?”, then no. Wonsan has a moderate chance of success as it is the one most focused on by the central government and it seems as if the DPRK and Japan could find an agreement in the near future that allows shipping and trading to resume.
They are for real in the sense that they are going to change the way North Koreans think about investment attraction and regional competition and may also provide a platform to experiment with agricultural or business projects that are heterodox.
How do you fund your work?
A: We pray to the benevolent unicorn remains they found in North Korea. Nah, but it is tough – we are constantly applying for grants from donors and have had very helpful support from the British government, Singaporean foundations and others. We also tend to ask our workshop leaders to donate to us when they come to North Korea. We know that’s a big ask – but most people see the value in what we do.
Broadly its difficult because when most people look at North Korea, they see this unchanging media image and think that nothing is possible there. It is – like all societies – dynamic and changing and we try to encourage changes that we think are positive ones. Still, that takes more explaining that it might in some countries.
How can we contribute to what you do?
A: We always need workshop leaders with a background in business, economics or law to come to the DPRK with us. Really, we couldn’t run the organization without this pool of volunteers who generate the content we need and help us cover our costs. In return, I can guarantee a totally unique experience, an opportunity to gain some understanding of a difficult to access country and the experience of contributing to some positive changes. Unfortunately, we can’t really take people traveling on US or Japanese passports.
Geoffrey K. See, founder and managing director of Choson Exchange, started working on Korean issues in 2005 and conceived Choson Exchange in 2007 with a belief in innovative approaches to development in North Korea. Geoffrey previously worked for Bain & Co., analyzed economic and political events for the CEO of Centennial Asia Advisors, and served in the Singapore Armed Forces. He is a board member of a listed Mongolian energy company, a research affiliate at MIT and an advisor to a Singapore-MIT research institute. As a University Fellow at Yale University (’09-’10), Geoffrey pursued research in entrepreneurship, development and ethics. Geoffrey graduated in 2 years with a Bachelors (Summa Cum Laude) from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and completed a Masters at Yale University. Geoffrey has lived in Singapore, China, Korea and the US.
Andray Abrahamian, executive director of Choson Exchange, became interested in Korea issues following a trip to the DMZ in 2003. This inspired an MA in International Relations from the University of Sussex. Upon completion, he started pursuing a PhD focusing on Western media and images of North Korea. Andray also taught international relations at the University of Ulsan. He has published various academic and op-ed articles and been solicited to offer commentary by international news broadcasting organizations. His academic interests include intercultural relations, post-colonialism, Orientalisms, hegemony and US-East Asian relations. Andray speaks Korean.