It was a chilly November morning in Pyongyang, and after three consecutive days of workshops with over a hundred North Korean entrepreneurs, we were ready for some sightseeing. Our partners extended an invitation to visit the Gold Cup food processing plant on the outskirts of the city and we were happy to accept, particularly as some of our workshop attendees were employed there.
Teaching startup skills and business knowledge to the frontier entrepreneurs of North Korea is often one of the most amazing things our volunteers have done. The recent Pyongsong Startup Bootcamp was particularly interesting: Instead of just telling us about their ideas, North Korean participants presented working prototypes and products they had already launched, looking for advice on how to improve their offerings.
We bring volunteers to train North Korean entrepreneurs inside the country. As such, any de-escalation of tensions is good news to us. Inter-Korean talks began Tuesday morning at the DMZ. While talks are good, they are only a start. In this case, the crux of the issue is still the nuclear/ICBM standoff, and these talks are only a starting point to find a way to resolve the issue. Without compromise on some or all sides, this precious momentum could still easily stall. But as David Carden, the first US resident Ambassador to Southeast Asia points out, sometimes talking about an expanded range of issues alongside the core issue could create negotiating space.
Every new year day, DPRK or North Korea publishes a New Year’s Address from Kim Jong Un that sets the focus for the year ahead. Much has been said on two aspects: Kim Jong Un’s “nuclear button”, a deterrence message (“I will launch my weapons at a notice if you threaten me”) and the rapprochement aspect with South Korea. Some consider the suggested North Korean attendance at Pyeongchang an off-ramp now that North Korea has achieved a threshold deterrence capability, while others consider it a peace offensive meant to split the US-South Korea-Japan alliance.
From the moment you board the flight from Beijing, things feel different. Like any flight, you expect to have to set your phone to airplane mode, but the feeling of going off-grid is tangible. A final “see you in week!” text and Facebook update as the plane pushes away from the gate, and an air of resignation when the attendant asks you politely to switch off. Some speculatively check for coverage upon landing at Pyongyang Sunan airport, but as foreign SIM cards can’t connect to the local network, there isn’t much point.
While Pyongyang remains the most glitzy and booming city in North Korea, Pyongsong has emerged as one of the country’s most important trading hubs. It’s also home to a growing community of ambitious entrepreneurs. So when the latest group of CE volunteers arrived in the DPRK earlier this month, there was a sense of excitement — and a room full of North Koreans who were eager to show the progress they had made over the past year.
'Things seem relatively normal in Pyongyang. Families and friends were out having dinner and drinks, going to the grocery store, etc. and there was no real sense of anxiety. I found it very striking actually how orderly everything in the city was. No one was particularly rowdy and everyone minded their own business. Not chaotic at all.' - Hear from one of our recent workshop leaders about what it is like to be in North Korea during this intensive situation.
The Choson Exchange team just returned from a two-day workshop for more than 100 local participants in Pyongyang, hosted by three professionals with real estate and investment backgrounds.The team introduced the concept of the Business Model Canvas as a lean tool to plan out businesses, and explain the role innovation plays in modern urban development. CE volunteers presented examples from Vietnam, London and Singapore. They also shared their experiences in financial projection, investment strategy, and managing real estate projects.