Singapore is finding itself at the epicenter of global media attention as the world waits to watch North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meet US President Donald Trump at the first-ever US-North Korea summit, scheduled for June 12.
The fact that the wealthy Southeast Asian city-state was chosen as the venue for the super high-profile summit was enabled by several factors – not least, North Korean trust. Singapore has hosted a North Korean embassy since 1975 and offers a top-down development model enabled by an interventionist government.
“Singapore is a non-threatening business hub whose model of development has been a long linear progression with a fair degree of state control,” said Ian Bennett. “It is something the North Koreans can see as a future trajectory for themselves.”
Bennett should know. He was in North Korea last month interacting with North Koreans as an associate program manager for a uniquely Singaporean NGO: Chosun Exchange.
Teaching capitalism in a post-communist state
While other North Korea-related NGOs focus on humanitarian issues and aid, Chosun Exchange – “Chosun” is a native Korean word for Korea – teaches North Koreans the basis of entrepreneurialism. It has been in operation for 11 years.
“I first visited North Korea in 2007,” said Chosun Exchange’s founder, Singaporean entrepreneur Geoffrey See. “I met university students there who were very interested in learning about starting their own businesses, 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.”
The organization has partnered with hundreds of foreign professionals to train thousands of business-minded individuals in North Korea. The NGO’s operations focus on business, finance, law, and economic policy, impacting the way some existing companies in the isolated country are run, as well as granting wannabe entrepreneurs the information and skill-sets they need.
In addition to in-country workshops, Choson Exchange has brought hundreds of North Koreans to Singapore for training programs on economic policy. The fact that North Korean authorities permit citizens to travel to Singapore indicates the positive view Pyongyang takes, not just of Singapore’s economic development, but also its political and social stability.
How did the organization manage to kick-start operations in a country that is sometimes known, due to its isolationist policies, as “The Hermit Kingdom?”
“As with many places, ties are established through personal contacts and trust-building,” said Bennett. “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.”
The NGO also conducts workshops with the State Academy of Sciences, which is based in Pyongsong, some 30 kilometers north of Pyongyang.
Chosun Exchange relies heavily upon volunteers for donations of money and time. “Currently, we rely mainly on volunteers who travel with us to North Korea to fund our programs,” See said. “They contribute to part of the costs of organizing a workshop.”
Why North Koreans want business skills
The skills Chosun Exchange teaches are critical to an economy that has been forced to pivot away from communism. Disastrous famines and the collapse of the state distribution system in the 1990s prompted desperate North Koreans to create survival markets. Those markets survived the crisis years, and have since become an integral component of, and a transformative agent in, the North Korean economy.
“There is a tremendous interest in business education,” said Bennett. “You can see this reflected not only in the number of people who attend our workshops, but also in the feedback we get.” The emphasis is on practicality. “At our workshops, participants consistently ask for more real-world examples of successful business management,” he said. “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.”
Chosun Exchange conducts a Women in Business (WIB) program course that specifically targeting female entrepreneurs. “We had a British workshop leader who had set up her own company for international study programs.” Bennett continued. “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.”
Personal stories of successful business case studies are not available in North Korean textbooks, Bennett explained, and few North Koreans are permitted to access the Internet.
“It’s not as if they are completely starved of information from the rest of the world, but it all comes through a prism,” he said. “And without the internet, you can only learn so much about business from a textbook. Do’s 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.”
Yet, even while the North Korean economy is in transition, is successful entrepreneurialism feasible in the world’s most sanctioned state? “North Koreans are acutely aware of their isolation,” Bennett admitted – but he has seen successful outcomes.
In a session last November, a former workshop attendee joined. “He applied some of the lean startup techniques we taught him: starting small, building your product up bit-by-bit,” Bennett said. “When he came back a year later, he had developed a device – an electricity surge protector – which he had begun selling locally.
International sanctions, in fact, were a key reason for the success of his product. “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,” Bennett said. “His value proposition is extremely strong. He’s now selling his device domestically and doing well.”
Market long isolated from global trends
If the Kim-Trump summit goes well, and the world starts making meaningful economic interactions with North Korea, the possibilities are significant for a market that has been isolated from global trends and brands for so long.
“The potential for meaningful change is, in my opinion, very high because of the relatively underdeveloped level the country is starting from,” said Bennett. “Furthermore, outside actors have incentives to invest in the country and build it up, particularly China with its Belt and Road Initiative.”
See hopes that a successful summit – if it leads to opportunities to do freer business if sanctions are eased – will propel his home country into deeper and wider relations with North Korea.
“Singapore is a trusted, connected and neutral venue that is needed given the different stakeholders and their agenda,” See said. “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.”