Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based non-profit organisation, runs business and economics workshops to support entrepreneurship in North Korea.
BY LOW SHI PING
PHOTOS SPH LIBRARY, CHOSON EXCHANGE
Geoffrey See says that North Koreans are often surprised by Singaporeʼs cultural diversity, such as finding a church next to a mosque in the Bugis area.
or the layperson, the concept of promoting entrepreneurship in North Korea may seem strange. But the team at non-profit organisation Choson Exchange will tell you otherwise.
Helmed by Singaporean Geoffrey See, 31, Choson Exchange helps educate North Korean professionals through workshops on business, domestic banking, law and economic policy to support entrepreneurship in the country.
As a delegate to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Youth Conference in South Korea in 2005, See was struck by how the political divide had segregated the north from the south, affecting families across the peninsula. His curiosity led him to North Korea as a tourist in 2007, where he met a university student with a keen interest in economics. She aspired to start a business to prove that women in her country could also be great business leaders in a field dominated by men.
“North Korea is an isolated and nationalistic country with a highly-regimented society. You might think that we wonʼt be able to learn anything from people living in such a different society, but you would be wrong…We...learn more about what makes us Singaporean through interacting with a country that is, in many ways, the polar opposite to us.””
Geoffrey See, founder and chairman of Choson Exchange
He never saw her again but the encounter inspired him to set up Choson Exchange as a way to better understand how young North Koreans view the world, and to share business and economics knowledge wih them.
To date, Choson Exchange has run 43 programmes attended by 1,309 participants. These were carried out primarily within North Korea; with occasional programmes in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
A North Korean translator at a workshop in Pyongyang.
It works with a North Korean partner, the Korea-Singapore Friendship Society, which builds ties between the people of the two countries. The Society helps to fill the workshop spaces and seek approval from the North Korean government on matters, such as content, for Choson Exchange’s workshop. See says the feedback from North Korean officials who have attended the courses has been positive.
As a result of the workshops, the North Koreans have a favourable impression of Singapore, especially since the bulk of the overseas workshops are held there. They are keen to learn from the Republic about economic growth, says See.
He adds: “As a post-colonial state, we had every chance of failure, but we made it. There are also many people who are happy to give their time to North Korea. They acknowledge and appreciate all these factors.”
See notes that by playing host, Singapore builds its prestige, and proves it can contribute something useful and specialised to North Korea’s development. “I like to think I am laying the foundation and providing access to the country for Singaporean businesses,” he says.
The interactions between the two countries have also yielded interesting cross-cultural insights.
See says: “Singapore is a highly-connected city acting as a regional platform for trade and commerce while North Korea is an isolated and nationalistic country with a highly-regimented society. You might think that we won’t be able to learn anything from people living in such a different society, but you would be wrong.
“There’s a North Korean slogan, ‘Keep your feet planted on this land and look out to the world’, which reflects a belief in staying grounded in one’s culture and traditions while interacting with the world. We see this reflected in their architecture, in some of their policy adaptations from abroad, and in many of their interactions with the world.
“We also learn more about what makes us Singaporean through interacting with a country that is, in many ways, the polar opposite to us.”
He recalls the reaction of a group of North Koreans he had taken to the Bugis area. They marvelled at how a church could be situated beside a mosque, and at how cosmopolitan the country is. “You realise Singapore is so diverse and it makes you think about how homogenous (the North Korean) society is,” he says.
Choson Exchange’s workshops focus on three key themes: women in business, provincial development and youth entrepreneurial networks.
These are what the North Koreans are interested in and need to learn about, says See, a former management consultant. The focus on female entrepreneurs is particularly interesting. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the North Korean economy, the men remained in government positions while the women ventured into business. See says: “It’s led to an interesting social dynamic. I’ve heard an anecdote about a lady, who runs a restaurant, earning more than her husband, who is a government official.”
Choson Exchange has a pool of about 200 volunteer teachers and subject experts from around the world managing the workshops. See says that many of these professionals are willing to lend their time because they have a strong curiosity about the country. As a bonus, they get to tour North Korea after conducting the workshops.
In recent years, North Koreaʼs capital Pyongyang has seen the emergence of a nascent entrepreneurial class.
Between 2010 and 2016, Singaporean architect Calvin Chua conducted three workshops on urban development strategies for a special economic zone in the eastern port city of Wonsan and a main street in Pyongyang. He says: “I wanted to better understand the culture of North Korea through interacting with local young professionals. I also think it is important to fill the existing knowledge gaps in various sectors and industries that are important for their development.”
See says that some workshop alumni have gone on to start interesting ventures. One participant established the first supermarket chain in the country, while another opened a cafe in Pyongyang.
He adds that there have also been changes to legislation, thanks to a group of North Korean officials who visited Vietnam and Singapore to study their real estate laws. He says: “A new law was passed in 2015 to clarify issues of land use in the economic zones, such as how to buy and sell, as well as ownership rights within the private sector.”
Separately, to support the goal of creating firstgeneration start-ups in North Korea, See plans to set up a separate commercial entity to incubate such start-ups and help them grow into viable businesses with access to investors.
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