Things Koreans Ask

North Korean conducts an orchestra in Singapore!

North Korean conducts an orchestra in Singapore!

Bringing North Koreans abroad is never easy, especially for those with limited experience living abroad independently. They have so many questions. Their questions reflect the different system they come from, and the limited international immersion they have. Because of their ‘alien’ perspective, their questions force me to think deeply about why things are the way they are. Here is a small sample: 

1.     Why does your government allow all these shops to give discounts? How do they calculate the tax revenue if shops are giving all these discounts?

Because a Singapore without discounts is not Singapore?

2. How can the audit companies regulate their own industry?

Beats me! Ask Arthur Andersen?

3. Who does one go to to get permission to talk to foreigners in your country?

Yo mama!

4. I don’t understand how Singapore became a medical hub. Did you have to go to war to acquire the technology?

Paying your bills helps too.

5. Singaporeans are too international. They study abroad, travel everywhere and work overseas. Their relationship to their country is so weak. How does Singapore keep its people in Singapore?

Parental pressure.

Yanji News: Quanhe River Port Bridge One Step Closer

An article in the Yanji News reports that one step towards a new bridge linking Yanbian with Rason was taken last week:

 China-North Korea Border Ring River Port Bridge Construction Project approved by the Ministry of Environmental Protection

Date: 07/07/2014


A billboard ad by Hunchun City, facing Korea, exhorting pushing forward together to open transportation routes.

A billboard ad by Hunchun City, facing Korea, exhorting pushing forward together to open transportation routes.

The China-North Korea Border Quanhe River Port Bridge Construction is one of the most important construction projects in Hunchun. This project is located at the Hunchun Border Quanhe Port, at the intersection of the low reaches of Tumen River and Quanhe River. It connects Hunchun with the Won Jong Ri in North Korea. The bridge starts from the China Border Port, and ends at the south of the North Korean Joint Inspection Building. The building is still under construction. The bridge will be 920 meters long, and can satisfy the transportation needs between North Korea and China, and stimulate the development of international business between China and North Korea.

The approval of Environmental Impact Statement of this project will lay the foundation of future construction. 

Research and Translation by Wang Xing Yu

Marching towards modern banks or sliding towards 2009?

Visiting a bank to run a workshop on risk management in 2012

Visiting a bank to run a workshop on risk management in 2012

North Korean banks have limited lending function. They function as a service provider, catering to trading companies conducting foreign transactions. Consumer deposits are a small part of bank liabilities, and we have often urged bankers to focus on building a depositor-based banking system to enable a more efficient commercial lending market.

Former World Bank staff and North Korea watcher Brad Babson recently wrote at NKnews about the need for a properly functioning domestic banking system for North Korea to accelerate development. Financial sector development in North Korea is an area we have always been concerned with, not just because our very first in-country program in the country focused on this area, but because easier access to capital is one of the things that domestic entrepreneurs sorely need. We support the growth of the domestic entrepreneurial sector, and capital is something this sector sorely needs.

The most interesting piece of recent news concerning the financial sector was an article published in Kim Il Sung University Gazette about mobilizing ‘idle funds.’ It goes on to say (re-citing from IFES):

The article states the following: “Some of the funds that are being circulated in the market have strayed away from the normal production process and distribution passage and remain harbored in the hands of organizations, enterprises, and people. . . . Mobilization of idle funds shall meet the funding needs of the state and serve as a source of supplementary income to increase state revenue.”

The article adds that “The state should secure idle funds of institutions and enterprises through banks and mobilize idle cash kept by the people through savings and insurance,” and furthermore states that “Banks should concentrate to have control over idle funds.”

If this idea is followed by good policy, it could potentially become a catalyst to the growth of domestic enterprises by enabling savings to be more efficiently channeled into investments. A pessimistic reading of the idea is that this could end up being a confiscatory measure meant to force domestic companies and individuals to pour their foreign currency into state bonds or state banks lending on non-commercial terms. This brings echoes of the 2009 chaos when a currency revaluation accompanied by a cap on the amount of old currency one could exchange into the new one devastated the merchant class and confiscated their wealth.

Some of our team members have toyed with various small-scale ideas on providing capital to small businesses in the country. Bank lending, venture financing, cooperatives, insurance or microfinance are all needed. Greater transparency in the sector, better reporting standards, and access for foreign players can help bring down interest rates. Building confidence in banks among depositors will be a key challenge.

With this new financial system in place, the Central Bank will have to take on an enhanced role managing an unprecedentedly complex financial sector (by DPRK standards). Traditionally, North Korean banks operate with limited oversight from the Central Bank or the Ministry of Finance. Given the Central Bank’s limited experience managing the financial sector, it will have a steep learning curve ahead of it, and this is a curve it needs to climb with greater knowledge assistance.

Hello Kitty, Hello Wonsan

This essay, arguing that if Japan and North Korea stay the course, Wonsan will be the big winner, was originally publish on July 9th, 2014 at 38 North.


Wonsan, on the DPRK’s east coast, by all accounts, used to bustle—at least by DPRK standards. If the recent outreach between Japan and North Korea bears fruit, Wonsan could undergo a 21st century revival.

Since Japan banned all trade with the DPRK in the wake of the disastrous Kim-Koizumi summit of 2002, Wonsan has been a shell of its former self. TheMangyongbong 92—the ferry that once brought both goods and people back and forth—has sat moored at the port since 2006, ill-fated ‘Rason luxury cruises’ notwithstanding.

Of all the planned Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that were announced last year, however, Wonsan will be the one where real change may take place. Compared to the other zones, it is something of a “national focus” that already has had and will continue to receive more central support than the other SEZs. Wonsan currently boasts the Hyondong Industrial Development Zone, a 2 km-square zone embedded in a much larger Special Tourist Zone. The boundaries for the tourist zone seem to not yet be fixed, but will likely extend west all the way past Masikryong (Masik Pass) Ski Resort to Sinpyong, another already designated special tourist area. Ultimately, some in the DPRK envision a zone that links up with Mt. Kumgang, some 150 km south of Wonsan. They have grandiose plans: attracting $100 million investment in tech and light industry at Hyondong, one million visitors per year to Wonsan, and a new international airport. These expectations are ambitious, to use a generous adjective.

One thing is clear, however, and that is for any of these plans to succeed even partly, Wonsan will need Japanese or South Korean investors and visitors—ideally both. Some North Koreans recognize this, even if no one is openly stating that Wonsan needs Japan or South Korea to thrive.

The prospects for improved inter-Korean relations looks tenuous, despite the mood in the South having once shifted towards engagement. President Park Geun-hye has said too many things about her vision of unification by absorption as of late. It is difficult to overstate how much Pyongyang loathes such talk, but they tried their best to convey it with the kind of invective you might expect to hear between football hooligans, not governments.

However, the prospects for some kind of breakthrough between Japan and the DPRK look surprisingly positive. The contemporary impasse between Japan and North Korea has hinged on essentially one issue: the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s by North Korea, and the lack of a clear or credible explanation of the fate of most of the abductees. This issue is far from simple, but compared to dealing with nuclear weapons or ballistic missile issues, which fuel tensions between the DPRK and both China and the US, it is an issue more easily addressed. The latter two go to the very heart of Pyongyang’s security concerns as well as impacting Japan’s security, the trilateral alliance and China’s position as a rising power. The abduction problem is largely about properly acknowledging and possibly repatriating people and remains to the satisfaction of the Japanese families who have a stake in the issue.

A Steady Buildup

In this context, the past year has seen cautious and deliberate progress towards that goal. Japan’s Isao Iijima, an advisor and campaign aide to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, certainly has an interesting travel schedule the past 12 months or so. Last May he visited Pyongyang for meetings. He followed that up in December with a trip to Washington DC in a very under-the-radar fashion, ignoring many of the usual protocols that one would expect for someone of his political stature.

Last October, he held secret talks in Dalian with North Koreans. He may have met them again in Vietnam in January 2014. Then Japanese and DPRK officials held talks in March on the sidelines of two Red Cross meetings in Shenyang, after which they announced that formal government to government discussions would take place.

Also in March 2014, abductee Megumi Yokota’s parents were allowed to meet their granddaughter in Mongolia. They came away from this rather dramatic and no doubt emotional encounter saying: “North Korea has changed a bit,” and maybe now was the right time to conclude the abductee issue. (They were apparently invited to Pyongyang to meet their great-granddaughter for the first time in May, but that seems to have not transpired.)

The two countries had further working-level talks between bureaucrats at the end of March in Beijing and have had other meetings in Shanghai. This led to a meeting inSweden in late May, at which Japan promised to lift a portion of its unilateral sanctions on North Korea once Pyongyang sets up an investigation committee and starts a “comprehensive and full-scale survey of all Japanese” including abductees.

On July 1, at a meeting in Beijing, Pyongyang informed Tokyo not only of the establishment of a new investigation into the issue, but also provided a list confirming thatat least 10 abductees are still living in North Korea. This was beyond what most observers expected and is a good start toward mollifying Japanese public opinion, which is of crucial importance if there is to be continued progress. Japan’s cabinet on Friday confirmed some of the autonomous sanctions would be lifted. Money transfers were made easier, as was travel between the two countries. Importantly, exports to the DPRK are still forbidden and DPRK-flagged ships can only port in Japan for humanitarian purposes. Trade will have to wait and the Mangyongbong-92 will, for now, remain moored in Wonsan, a symbol of Japan’s judicious caution.

Indeed, Japan has been very deliberate in its step-by-step approach, while also displaying a keen understanding of the kind of buy-in they need from institutions and individuals in Pyongyang. Furthermore, on the domestic front, Abe has the conservative résumé—perhaps as President Nixon did when he reached out to China—to fend off complaints from his country’s vitriolic right-wingers. His party’s position is also sound, with an opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) that is disorganized and weak. The abduction issue is close to Prime Minister Abe’s heart. He came to prominence on the back of it in the early 2000s under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and solving this problem would be a huge feather in his cap.

Beyond the potential political windfall, Japan would be keen to get its hands on North Korea’s large, unexploited deposits of rare earth minerals, necessary for the production of pretty much all electronics. China controls 80 percent of the world’s production of these minerals and as China-Japan relations remain tense, this has been a source of concern for Japanese businesses.

As for the North Koreans, they are desperate to diversify economic relations away from China. A deal with Japan would also put greater pressure on Seoul to find ways to get involved in North Korea’s economy. The South has already conceded much influence to China since the end of the “Sunshine” era and would be loathe to see another neighbor take advantage of the North’s resources.

However, Pyongyang and Tokyo are both quite reasonably worried that a deal could yet fall apart—they thought they had nailed normalization in 2002, only to have it blow up in their faces. Indeed, Kim Jong Il and Junichiro Koizumi’s miscalculation of how the abductions admission would play in Japan proved paralyzing. Japanese right wingers, with Abe as an ally, poured fuel on the fire; North Korea compounded this with further claims on the issue that seemed less than credible. From Pyongyang’s perspective, they risked a lot in 2002 and they can’t afford to have this attempt also fail, causing another decade absent Japanese trade.

In fact, the reparations/aid package that the two countries were moving towards in the early 2000s is almost certainly not in the cards any time soon: after all, from Japan’s perspective, the missiles and nuclear weapons are still an issue and they can’t strike out too far from their allies. For now, a resumption of trade and port calls for Korean ships will probably be enough of a goal for Pyongyang. It’s hard to believe when one looks at North Korea’s current dependence on China, but throughout the 1990s, trade with Japan was almost a great as trade with the PRC.

Wonsan and Japan

Throughout the late twentieth century, Wonsan was always considered a resort town, an idea being reclaimed with vigor by Kim Jong Un.

Wonsan will never be Busan or even Nampo, but it has long been a link to the center of the peninsula for Japan, first driven by the discovery of gold in the region in the 1880s. The gold boom gave locals purchasing power that other provinces did not enjoy, making it an outlet for Japanese goods since before the colonial period.[1]

In the 1960s it became the locus of Japanese-Korean repatriation. The emotional and social incentives for repatriation waned in the late 1960s and 1970s, but following a 1979 change in Japanese law, visitation (and return to Japan) was allowed for pro-North Koreans resident in Japan. In the 1980s, the Mangyongbong ferry ran dozens of times a year, bringing hundreds of visitors a month.[2] It also brought businesspeople who connected Korean-Japanese businesses with the homeland.

People and goods used to flow regularly through Wonsan—visitors to the city in the early 2000s described the food products, electronics and cars, as all being Japanese.

Today, there are few foreign tourists and the TVs are Chinese. What Wonsan needs most (or at least first) in order to reclaim its former glory—more than skiiers and ‘light-industrialists’—is traders and Korean-Japanese visitors. If the export and shipping ban were to be lifted, this would very quickly foster two-way trade through Wonsan. Moreover, because the DPRK’s economic environment has continued to become more “private-ish” than it was when trade was shut down, one could expect a greater diversity of actors and perhaps a wider disbursement of profits.

Chongryon (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan; the organizational home of pro-North Koreans in Japan) may not be what it once was, with fewer members and less economic clout than in days gone by (in fact, this is not unrelated to the negative PR from the abduction issue). But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pro-North Korean Japanese businesspeople ready to move once the rules relax. And while some of Pyongyang’s plans for Wonsan are pie-in-the-sky, there are changes taking place on the ground already. Several hotels and other facilities are being refurbished. Indeed, conversion of the scenic Kalma Peninsula from an Air Force retreat to a tourist resort was completed last year (though military live fire exercises still take place in the area).

If Pyongyang and Tokyo can put something together, Wonsan will be the big winner, first from visitors and imports, then perhaps through export of resources to Japan.

It is important to recall, however, that in 1992, Japanese interest in North Korea was quite strong, with a number of high profile businesspeople taking part in a large trade mission that year. Within months, this interest was shunted aside as the DPRK’s missile and nuclear programs took center stage. Wonsan will be hoping that the recent progress between Pyongyang and Tokyo isn’t similarly undone.


[1] Kirk W. Larsen, Trade, Dependency and Colonialism in Korea at the Center: Dynamics of Regionalism in Northeast Asia, Charles K. Armstrong et. al eds. (M.E. Sharpe: New York, 2005) 55-57.

[2] Sonia Ryang, Koreans in Japan: Critical Voices from the Margin (Routledge: New York, 2005) 40.

The Female Factor

On June 11, the Institute for Far Eastern Studies and Friedrich Naumann Foundation hosted a conference with the snappy title: "North Korea’s Development Capacity and International Cooperation for Knowledge Sharing: Gender, Agriculture, and Tourism Perspectives." The conference brought together practitioners in these diverse fields with scholars to examine and discuss some of the ongoing exchanges taking place in these diverse fields. 

Choson Exchange's Nils Weisensee went along to present a paper on CE's Women in Business program as we approach its 18 month anniversary.

The Women in Business program has seen:

130+ female participants since launch
40+ different institutions represented by women
7 provinces represented in programs 
15-20% selectivity for overseas programs

We encourage you to download and peruse the paper, which explains and contextualizes such nuggets.

Paper Abstract:

Since the initiation of its Women in Business (WIB) program in 2012, Choson Exchange (CE) has been training more than 130 female North Koreans in business, finance, and law. Several dozen competitively selected participants have been taken to Singapore for study trips on international business practices and policy-making. The WIB program focuses on women because ambitious female professionals in the emergent small and medium enterprise sector (SME) are increasingly driving economic change in the DPRK. Feedback from participants and North Korean partners on this initiative has been very encouraging. Therefore, CE plans to expand both its workshop series in the DPRK, as well as the study trips to Singapore. CE also works to reduce some of the hurdles that prevent North Koreans from starting a business by providing mentorship, a network of peers, and possibly funding to get startups off the ground. Having strong local partners, as well as programs on both macro-economic policies and micro-economic business skills, puts CE into a position to scale its impact as much as donor support permits.

The paper is available here.

Borderland Cafes (or "we're not obsessed with coffee, but...")

Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture in China is a fascinating place. Its major city, Yanji, has experienced a huge economic boom in recent years. Connections with wealthy South Korea grow every year, new apartment blocks are springing up everywhere and it is soon to be connected to high-speed rail. In the area, three or four distinct Korean cultures intermingle: Korean-Chinese from the prefecture, Korean-Chinese from outside, North Koreans and South Koreans.

Gabeeyang interior and baking cubby hole

Gabeeyang interior and baking cubby hole

It is largely due to the latter than Yanji is probably the best coffee town in China, with roasters, specialty shops and huge student hangouts: cafes the size of basketball courts. Its a region where you won't find a Starbucks, but you can find yourself a hand-drip cup of Sidamo, when in season.

If you happen to be in the area, say, in order to run Rason's first ever business workshop last month, you should consider getting your coffee-fix on the border. Coffee in Rason has yet to impress (not the greatest of its issues, though).

Yanji has a broad selection of cafes, too numerous to list here, but the standout for this bean-hound* is Gabeeyang Cafe, an outpost of a very small South Korean chain. 

Uni students: their expressions don't reflect the quality of the choco-caramel whatevers they were drinking.

Uni students: their expressions don't reflect the quality of the choco-caramel whatevers they were drinking.

They have outstanding, bright, fruity espresso shots, a selection of single-origin cafes and all the K-pop you can handle. They roast on-premises. Gabeeyang is located just east of the Yanbian University, below Gina's Place, a popular western hangout with a menu that reminds you of food you liked back home.

Other noteworthy mentions in that neighborhood are the massive Wan Cafe, right across from the university main gate, and a Hands Coffee, a block west of that.

Some 45 kilometers away, one finds Tumen City, which now boasts a handful of coffeeshops, having only gotten streetlights a few years ago. It has a small town feel that most of us don't experience regularly in China and has turned itself into a DPRK-watching tourist destination, from which you can peer across at the denizens of Namyang going about their lives.

This chap recommends a wide stance for North Korea watching - Namyang sits quietly across the river.

This chap recommends a wide stance for North Korea watching - Namyang sits quietly across the river.

There are two more Hands coffeeshops in town, further outposts of a growing South Korean chain that usually features a distinctive yellow and purple LA-lakers decor (which sounds ugly, but isn't so bad). 

Big Hands

Big Hands

There are two more Hands coffeeshops in town, further outposts of a South Korean chain that seems to be anchoring in Yanbian for its China-franchising strategy.  The bigger of the two has pride of place on a recently developed public square right by the Tumen river. 

It actively courts the South Korean tourist won and provides views of Korean mountains and the banks of the Tumen River. The space is well designed for its purpose, with high ceilings and an entirely glass facade.

There are also three Hands cafes in Yanji and at least one in Longjing, another border town. They all serve the same quality, dark roasted blend that provides a solid, traditional Italian style espresso. Crucially, they also do refills. 

The vocational school that houses Green Apple

The vocational school that houses Green Apple

.Also in Tumen is the Green Apple Cafe, run by the avuncular Bob Granger. It is attached to the Tumen River Vocational School, which was set up by a Christian group to provide education to under-privileged Korean-Chinese students.

South Korean Tourists Welcome!

South Korean Tourists Welcome!

If you want run into one of the six western expats in Tumen (seriously), this is the spot. The coffee here tasted somewhat less curated than in other Yanji cafes, but the fresh-baked breads and pastries would best most in the region.

One should note, again, that to find three cafes in a Chinese backwater of less than 150,000 people is remarkable. It seems incongruous that there are bubbles of bourgeois cosmopolitanism in a place that in some ways is so utterly provincial and has some of that unruly energy one finds in borderlands all over the developing world. Yanbian has had a front-row seat for much of modern Sino-Korean history, with colonial migrations, wars, famine, cultural tensions, North Korean refugees and finally, the kind of economic growth that allows middle class travelers to enjoy an espresso in the morning. One hopes the demographic of locals that can afford such treats continues to expand. Even if they're ordering choco-caramel frappes.

Green Apple Interior

Green Apple Interior


*I know, I know.

Bringing Women in Business Abroad

Preparing to present a business concept

Preparing to present a business concept

Roughly half of our programs focus on policy issues, while the other half focuses on entrepreneurship and business innovation, particularly among females in the small and medium enterprise segment. We recently concluded an overseas workshop for our cherished Women in Business program, in which eight participants we selected from two workshops in Pyongyang came to Singapore. They spent two weeks learning about international business norms and different business concepts inside and outside of the classroom.

Significant logistical challenges exist in organizing a program overseas and these challenges raise the complexity of matching program content with participant needs. For example, we get to know candidates through interviewing and selecting them in North Korea. This begins a relationship and ensures that we understand candidates’ areas of interest. However, when a program takes place overseas, travel dates for North Koreans can shift at the last minute, or a minority of participants are unable to get a visa to travel, sometimes resulting in a mismatch of topics with participants, as the program has to be prepared in advance of these last minute changes.

Because of the logistical uncertainties imposed by onerous travel regulations, and the possibility of last minute shifts in program dates, we normally only start preparing for a program after receiving an email confirmation of the participants who will be attending (normally around 1 month before the actual program). This leads to a short time frame to scramble together a cohesive program, prepare materials and find relevant workshop leaders. This year, we looked at increasing the experiential portion of our overseas programs. Instead of having more lectures, we wanted to the Koreans take advantage of the rare opportunity to be abroad by exploring the environment in order to draw insights from their own observations.

Our volunteer, Desmond, currently studying at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, put together a retail research project where participants had to visit various shops and analyze it using basic business frameworks (for the business-inclined, this was the 4Ps and 5Cs). They then used their findings to create a retail concept, which they presented. We were surprised at how excited participants were by the group project, putting together complex logos, brand slogans, and in one case recording a voice-over to accompany the unveiling of the brand. This sort of pedagogy is rarely heard of in the DPRK.

At the end of the program, we gathered feedback. Satisfying a diverse group of North Korean participants is always a challenge. They do not seem to understand opportunity costs: an ideal program that satisfies everyone would have more breadth (e.g. more marketing, finance, or human resources depending on the individuals’ functional interest), more depth (e.g. deeper dive into marketing), and more sightseeing. And of course, as busy businesswomen, programs also have to be short so that they can get back to work. So we have a limited number of hours in which participants want to do basically more of everything, and still have enough time to sleep.

A striking paradox we observed is that participants do not ask as many questions at workshops outside of North Korea as they do in North Korea. Our initial hypothesis is that when overseas, the relative value to Koreans of spending another hour in the classroom versus having the opportunity to walk around and observe things dis-incentivizes classroom-based learning.

Another cultural difference we found was that some participants associate learning with listening to a difficult topic they do not understand. If they get a concept after one session, then it must have been too simple!

The highlight to me of the program was the last session we had - a facilitated discussion on female entrepreneurs. Wenchi, a friend from Taiwan, who at one point was a senior advisor to Hilary Clinton on women’s issues, talked about how female entrepreneurs in most parts of the world faced four challenges: access to financing, access to markets, capacity building and leadership exposure. She pointed out that many of these challenges could be overcome through women’s business networks and mentoring programs. In fact, much of the most practical and useful knowledge women managers require in North Korea can probably come from their own successful businesspersons! What they need is a platform for these people to share their experience.

Participants appeared eager to see these opportunities develop. Given the resources required for an overseas program, we are always seeking alternatives that will allow us to more effectively help women entrepreneurs grow their SMEs. More in-country programs focused on networking and mentoring could be such an alternative. We are thus considering making the Women in Business program exclusively an in-country program.

I have to admit that after a full month of preparing and implementing this segment of the program, it is easy to feel burned out by the experience. At least the Choson Exchange team will have a few weeks to recover before our next program...

DPRK Embassy Beijing Consular Section Opening Hours

It's hard to find the opening hours to the DPRK embassy in Beijing if you search the web. These are the opening hours as of 2014:

Monday and Friday - 9:30-11:30 a.m., 2:30-5:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday - 9:30-11:30 a.m.

Photo by Felix Glenk

Photo by Felix Glenk

Rumors have it that the embassy's consular section is sometimes open on Saturday morning, but not always.

The embassy's consular section is located in Cao Fang Di, between the Utown and Parkview Green malls.

JVIC and SEDC to be merged

We told you so in March.

"Given the fluid institutional basis for many of the new economic institutions in North Korea, it is even possible that the SEDC and JVIC could be merged again at some point in the future."

Short answer: we think this is a good thing. Investor agreements, 'exclusive' rights and attraction need to be streamlined to prevent multiple 'exclusive' rights being sold. While this can bureaucratize the investment process, things really can't get more bureaucratic than it is now in North Korea.

The news:


Ministry of Foreign Trade Reorganized as Ministry of External Economic Affairs

Pyongyang, June 18, 2014 20:58 KST (KCNA) — The DPRK decided to reorganize the Ministry of Foreign Trade as the Ministry of External Economic Affairs of the DPRK by merging the Joint Venture and Investment Commission of the DPRK and the State Economic Development Committee of the DPRK with it.

The Presidium of the DPRK Supreme People's Assembly promulgated a decree in this regard on Wednesday.

A New Design for North Korea

The recent collapse of a building in Pyongyang’s Phyongchon District has drawn attention to North Korea’s design and construction industry. The industry has undergone significant changes which may signal a long-term trend towards global norms.

Two days after the building’s collapse, Ma Won Chun, a reputable North Korean architect with experience in finance, was appointed to lead the new ‘Designing Department’ housed within North Korea’s National Defence Commission (NDC).

While it remains to be seen who will be punished for the building’s collapse, Pyongyang’s media response surprised many outside observers — the admission of fault was unusual. The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) broadcast self-critical apologies by North Korean officials. With something of this magnitude, the authorities had to get ahead of the story domestically. Rumours can spread nationwide and failing to address the outrage of the most important constituency — Pyongyang — could have been risky.

But the government’s response to the building’s collapse also seems to fit with a wider trend. Pyongyang appears to be strategically aligning its design and construction industry with global trends and norms. Ma’s appointment can also be seen as part of this trend. Some commentators have remarked that Ma’s appointment together with the creation of the new Designing Department could have been a direct response to the incident. If so, that would be an incredibly rapid response.

"Civilized Socialist County" - Construction Projects have feature prominently under Kim Jong Un

"Civilized Socialist County" - Construction Projects have feature prominently under Kim Jong Un

The organisational structure of the Designing Department, which consolidates the design and construction process and controls teams of soldier builders, is similar to the design-build project delivery system — a globally popular construction delivery method. This system calls for the management of design and construction by a single entity, which, in principle, can result in greater efficiency and better integration between different stakeholders in the project.

Other attempts at improving coordination in construction are apparent in organisational and technological changes.

The dissolution of the Capital City Construction Commission in April, though believed to be politically motivated by Jang Song Thaek’s purge, has been important in removing the organisation’s overlapping functions with existing ministries.

Also, according to an architect during a Choson Exchange visit, the design and construction industry is experimenting with the process of Building Information Modelling (BIM), a tool for integrating construction information between different stakeholders of the project.

There is also a growing interest in design, as witnessed in the development of landmark projects, such as the Masikryong Ski Resort and Munsu Water Park. Another example is the elevation of Pyongyang University of Architecture to a ‘general university’ in November 2013, making it the fourth university in the country to enjoy this status. Several designers educated abroad have also been exposed to new design tools and knowledge that can be applied in North Korea.

So, what do these general trends and the appointment of Ma Won Chun as the leader of the Designing Department in the NDC mean for North Korea?

First, having a central authority preside over design and construction units in the country may reduce inter-ministry rivalry and improve the coordination, efficiency and quality of construction projects. This is especially important within the context of attracting foreign investors to develop North Korea’s new special economic zones. Perhaps more than political shifts at the top, what these investors are concerned with is the smooth delivery and quality execution of projects. This requires reliable, efficient and well-coordinated local partners on the ground.

Second, with the state´s increasing desire to develop tourism products, devoting more attention to design is important for creating a suitable environment and ‘experience’ for tourists, which are lacking in current resorts. The new department in the NDC seems to signal the growing importance of design at a strategic level. However, the success of its strategic goals will also need to be complemented bytraining and exposure to global design standards for people on the ground.

Although the Designing Department in the NDC is too new to be accurately evaluated, its creation and the appointment of Ma Won Chun seem to reveal that things are at least starting to move in the right direction for North Korea’s design and construction industry.

This article originally appeared on the East Asia Forum Website.