Friday, 8 June 2018

How a Singapore NGO shapes North Korean entrepreneurs

Chosun Exchange has been quietly training thousands of business-minded North Koreans for over a decade

Singapore has been the focus of global media attention since being confirmed as the host of the upcoming US-North Korea Summit scheduled for June 12. The wealthy Southeast Asian city-state is one of the few countries which host a North Korean embassy. Those diplomatic ties seem to have helped enable the work of Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based NGO.

Founded in 2007 by Geoffrey See, a Singaporean entrepreneur, the organization has partnered with hundreds of foreign professionals to train thousands of business-minded individuals in North Korea through workshops on business, finance, law, and economic policy, impacting the way existing companies in the country are run.

Apart from conducting in-country workshops, Choson Exchange has brought hundreds of North Koreans to Singapore for training programs on economic policy, developments that many have regarded as a signal that North Korean authorities take a positive view of Singapore’s economic development and political stability.

Asia Times recently spoke with founder Geoffrey See and Ian Bennett, an associate program manager at Choson Exchange, about the meaningful impacts of ongoing in-country training workshops and the mood inside North Korea ahead of the historic planned summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump.

Excerpts follow:

Asia Times: How did Choson Exchange originate and when did you begin operations?

See: I first visited North Korea in 2007. I met university students there who were very interested in learning about starting their own business, in particular, a female university student who told me her dream was to show that women can be great business leaders. I then spent the next two years trying to find a way in to create exchanges and also to understand how North Koreans viewed the world outside.

Bennett: We began running in-country workshops in 2010. They were small to start with and we currently to try run, frankly, as many as our budget permits, per year.

Asia Times:
Who are your main funders and funding bodies?

See: Currently, we rely mainly on volunteers who travel with us to North Korea to fund our programs. They contribute to part of the costs of organizing a workshop.

Asia Times: How did Choson Exchange go about establishing ties with North Korea?

Bennett: As with many places, ties are established through personal contacts and trust-building. We work with an organization known as the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, one of its subdivisions, in particular, the Korea-Singapore Friendship Society. We liaise directly with them. They are our main counterparts in the country. We also run workshops with the State Academy of Sciences, which is based in Pyongsong, some thirty kilometers north of Pyongyang.

Asia Times:
How much interest is there in business education among North Koreans and what specific skill sets are sought?

Bennett: There is a tremendous interest in business education there. You can see this reflected not only in the number of people who attend our workshops but also in the feedback we get.

At our workshops, participants consistently ask for more real-world examples of successful business management. When foreign workshop leaders come and share their stories, perhaps of a firm or a company they built up, that tends to provoke enormous numbers of questions.

We conduct a Women in Business (WIB) program course specifically targeting female entrepreneurs in North Korea. We had a British workshop leader who had set up her own company for international study programs. She was extremely inspirational as someone in their mid-30s who had founded and built up her own company, which had taken on several hundred employees.

Stories like these aren’t available in their textbooks. If you consider where these people are, it’s not as if they are completely starved of information from the rest of the world, but it all comes through a prism. And without the internet, you can only learn so much about business from a textbook. Dos and don’ts, things that have worked well in the real world, things that have gone badly: real-world examples are tremendously useful to them.

Asia Times: Were you able to glean how North Korean participants in your workshop might regard recent diplomatic developments and high-profile meetings between Kim Jong-un and world leaders during your recent visit to the country?

Our most recent workshop took place in May 2018, which I led. We were fortunate to have a record-breaking attendance with some 130 North Koreans taking part. Based on my own inferences and assumptions, my general impression is that there now appears to be a mood of cautious optimism among North Koreans I encountered.

We were in the country during US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit and regular people seemed to understand the significance of the visit. Pyongyang has not been visited by a US Secretary of State since Madeline Albright in 2000.

Kim’s meeting with South Korea President Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom in April was also reported and seen domestically. People seem to understand that things are changing. They are hopeful but cautious, like everyone else, because there is unpredictability on all sides.

Asia Times: What potential is there for economic policy training workshops to make a meaningful impact given existing economic sanctions and the country’s well-known isolation?

Bennett: North Koreans are acutely aware of their isolation. Under some of the tightest sanctions in the world, sometimes it can feel like we’re going there to encourage them to start businesses and develop their own products, but what chance could they possibly have?

We did a session last November in Pyongsong and we brought along a gentleman who had attended our workshop the year before. He applied some of the lean startup techniques we taught him: starting small, building your product up bit-by-bit. When he came back a year later, he had developed a device – an electricity surge protector – which he had begun selling locally.

This gentleman, despite being in an extraordinarily sanctioned country, created a product for domestic markets which, in fact, works very well in a sanctioned domestic market. If you’re in a country where the electricity supply is pretty flakey and you’ve got ageing heavy machinery, if the electricity supply surges, repairing that machinery can be very difficult.

Similarly, if you have free and open trade, you will struggle to produce a surge protector that can compete internationally. He’s found that niche in the middle of it and his value proposition is extremely strong. He’s now selling his device domestically and doing well.

It is examples of ingenuity like these that – once the shackles are gone – can develop even further. The potential for meaningful change is, in my opinion, very high because of the relatively underdeveloped level the country is starting from. Furthermore, outside actors have incentives to invest in the country and build it up, particularly China with its Belt and Road Initiative.

Asia Times: Was Singapore chosen to host the upcoming US-North Korea Summit for logistical convenience or is there something more significant about the country’s neutral posture that made it an ideal venue for this historic meeting?

Bennett: North Korea established diplomatic ties with Singapore in 1975 and has had an embassy in the city-state since. Singapore is a non-threatening business hub and whose model of development has been a long linear progression with a fair degree of state control. It is something the North Koreans can see as a future trajectory for themselves.

See: Singapore is a trusted, connected and neutral venue that is needed given the different stakeholders and their agenda. I hope after the summit, there are more multilateral initiatives based in Singapore or other third-party neutral countries that provide a framework for North Korea's competing economic suitors to collaborate.

A version of this interview appeared at Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is a writer and journalist with the Asia Times covering current affairs in Singapore and Malaysia. He can be reached at