Business Studies in North Korea

A couple of years ago, when I first visited Pyongyang, a Kim Il Sung University student told me that she wanted to be a businesswomen. I was delighted to hear that since I was planning to go into research and teaching in international management. I asked her why. She said, “I want to prove that women can be good business leaders too.” A short while later, we started talking about politics. The issue must have caused her some distress. She asked me whether I was interested in such issues. I said “I am interested in everything… including politics. Aren’t you interested in it too?” She replied, “Politics is for men only.”

Obviously, when North Koreans talk about business, they have a very different context in mind. Businesses do not operate in a market economy and this has significant implications for what knowledge can be immediately implementable. However, many of the basic decisions that businesses have to make everyday still have to be made in North Korea: how to sell, how to reduce costs, how to lead organizations or how to enter foreign markets. The issue is whether the incentives or signals function in the same manner, and whether these differences lead to a reordering of business priorities.

I wonder whether the student represents a trend towards greater interest in business studies in North Korea and whether such trends are divided among gender lines. Some NGOs we talked to mention how during visits to Pyongyang-based universities, North Koreans had very specific requests for business textbooks. The requests reflect a level of knowledge of the field of business studies that an outsider normally does not expect from North Koreans. The interesting question is how this knowledge is operationalized under a non-market context.