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.
At our workshop on entrepreneurship in real estate in August, we came across a banking brochure in our hotel in the DPRK. The bank offers fixed deposit interest rates of 7-12% annualized for a range of foreign currencies including US Dollars, Euros and Chinese Yuan. We do not know in practice how this would work since we never visited the bank, and Koreans we talked to seemed skeptical about getting money back from banks.
We believe a startup incubator in DPR Korea can act as a focal point for access to mentorship, business networking, and knowledge. We believe such an incubator has the potential to catalyze the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the country. We took first steps toward this idea in 2015, training four Koreans for four months at an incubator in Singapore. Last year, these Koreans joined our volunteers to mentor and coach seven startup teams in developing their ideas. The workshop was well-received, and while building the ecosystem is a slow process, we hope to develop a vibrant and fully-functioning incubator over the course of the coming years, and advance the cause of frontier entrepreneurship. While we expect 2017 and 2018 to be challenging years, we aim to continue organizing workshops to provide audiences in Korea with the business exposure lacking in the country.
Our YEN program has seen encouraging progress last year, with more than a dozen business ideas put together by local participants in collaboration with foreign volunteers who joined us on trips. We have increased the impact of our YEN programs by developing a more interactive workshop format that produces real, usable, solid business ideas. Choson Exchange programs have also provided a platform for local entrepreneurs to meet like-minded people from other parts of the country.
To better understand the changing urban landscape in DPR Korea, we collaborated with the Architectural Association to host a workshop focused on architecture and real estate, covering the intersection of entrepreneurship and infrastructure. Led by Choson Exchange colleague architect Calvin Chua, we shared best practices in infrastructure development from abroad, and gained insights into the sector in the country. We also frequently visited Unjong Park, a technology zone next to the city of Pyongsong, for consultations on developing facilities and regulations to support startups.
When we started preparing the first Women In Business program in DPR Korea, our idea to focus on female participants seemed strange to local partners. No exchange program of this kind, focusing on this demographic, existed. Asking for significant input on who would attend these events, aiming for a high rate of repeat participants, teaching business content to a majority-female audience — our partners did not think this was a good idea. Nonetheless, we pitched our vision, and pushed forward to build the very first initiative of this kind in the country.