North Koreans are visiting Singapore – whither the 'hermit' kingdom?

A nonprofit in Singapore is paving a path that some say may help open up North Korea to the outside world and stoke interest in private commerce and economic growth there.

Edgar Su/Reuters/File
Customers shop at a vegetable and fruits wholesale market in Singapore August 22, 2013.

Neither Dennis Rodman nor tough talk from Washington and Seoul have improved relations with the new regime in North Korea.

But a little-known professionals’ network is trying to pave a path that may help open up the reclusive North to the outside world and stoke interest in private commerce and economic growth there.

The Choson Exchange, a nonprofit based in Singapore, regularly sends business volunteers to Pyongyang and brings North Koreans to Singapore, in an effort to connect young people through workshops in economic policy, international business, and law.

The group’s ability to network with young North Korean professionals signals an apparent willingness within the regime to open up to market ideas, the one force that analysts say can drive positive change in the country. “The idea behind all of this,” says Geoffrey See, the founder of the program, “is that we would like to see North Korea integrate with the rest of the world.”

That’s a tall task, considering North Korea is one of the world’s most reclusive countries, and its economic development is stunted by international sanctions and anti-capitalist policies.

“One should always be careful in dealing with any sanctioned exchange or interaction with any group in North Korea, as all are arms of the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] state and usually have other agendas at work,” says Andrew S. Natsios, co-chairman of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, and a professor at Texas A&M’s George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. “That having been said, the more contact with the outside world North Korean officials have, the more they will realize the disparity between what they are told back home and the reality in the real world.”

It’s also rare that North Koreans, even the elite few that are selected by the government to live in the model city of Pyongyang, are free to leave North Korea – let alone to visit a model economic hub such as Singapore.

Since See founded the group in 2008, workshops in North Korea have grown in frequency. So have overseas programs. In July, 10 young professionals – all women – traveled to Singapore to meet with peers and discuss management and business issues.

All of the women on this recent week-long trip work for North Korean government agencies or related economic development or technology companies in Pyongyang – meaning they have close ties to the regime and are among the most well off of North Korea’s 22 million people.

The culture gap was evident in more than working electricity, food, and the humming economy in Singapore. One woman had particular trouble grasping the concept of a women’s business network. “Is it approved by the government?” she asked in English, struck by the notion that entrepreneurs and managers would associate among themselves without government oversight. The group’s North Korean minder, tasked with reporting back to the government everything that transpired on the trip, sat wordlessly and observed.

Another North Korean, who made sure as many people in the room as possible got her business card, explained at great length North Korea’s attractive investment climate and investor protections. Left unsaid are the practical obstacles in trying to do business in a country where basic communications tools such as the Internet and international phone lines are unavailable to most people, and where there are widespread reports of bribery and corruption; North Korea ranked 174 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index .

Mr. See, a Singaporean, founded the group (Choson is the Korean word for North Korea) after traveling to North Korea in 2007 while he was a business student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“I went there with the idea that this is North Korea, it’s a socialist country, everyone is brainwashed, and no one is interested in business because everything is state-run,” says See, now the group’s managing director.

He found that North Koreans lacked access to modern business knowledge and felt shut off from the rest of the world. See made requests to enter the country and to put on university-level courses in business and economics, eventually engaging a government agency that encourages economic development.

“The huge challenge was getting them to understand the purpose of the program, the structure, and what people can get out of it,” says See.

Today the group and its volunteer trainers make monthly trips to North Korea to organize or hold events, and expect to train some 200 North Koreans this year – double the number trained under the program from 2010, according to the group’s 2012 annual report. See also opened a Choson Exchange office in Beijing to facilitate exchanges from China to Singapore and is building a staff along with the group’s executive director, Andray Abrahamian.

The group’s Facebook and Twitter pages are forums for swapping information and observations with other Korea watchers. Economic and political developments are tracked, along with on-the-ground observations from North Korea – such as, recently, a visible increase in artisan coffee shops, and the growing number of taxis on Pyongyang’s streets.

Some argue the way to force change on North Korea is through isolation, as opposed to engagement. See describes the Choson Exchange’s approach as a middle path.

“If North Korea reforms, this kind of knowledge and exposure is important and it drives that process,” See says. “If North Korea’s government is going to collapse, you would still need people who can rebuild society and the economy in a post-collapse era.”

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