Small Solidarities



OK, so I'm a man starting this post by quoting a man who is referencing the ideas of another man. I recognize that this may be a bad start, but frankly, on a recent Women in Business (WIB) program we ran in Pyongyang, I experienced perhaps the greatest solidarity we've seen between the foreign workshop leaders we brought in and the Korean participants.

Workshop leaders covered some specific aspects of expanding one's business through product design and customer relations before moving onto the less concrete, but crucially important, issues of business networking and mentoring. The latter in particular addressed the disadvantages faced by women everywhere and is really the reason for the WIB program. 

Many of the volunteers we take stay connected to North Korea issues, either through us or in other ways. Most people leave feeling they learned far more than they imparted and that the country is more interesting, inspiring and complex than they had imagined. Most agree that supporting entrepreneurs leads to positive outcomes.

Visual Networking Exercise

Visual Networking Exercise

This particular workshop was something a bit more than that, however. My British upbringing has given me a low degree of credulity towards expressions of sincerity, but for me, slightly on the outside of events in this workshop, it was inspiring to see a kinship and affinity between the Koreans and non-Koreans that I don't think I'd observed before.

There was a broad solidarity around the idea that gender discrimination in professional spheres is not only bad for individuals but also bad for organisations and societies. (I think the small percentage of men in the audience and volunteer team would support that statement, too.)

But perhaps more than that there was a uniquely engaging set of personalities on both sides. Korean students - famously shy - were extremely proactive in getting conversations started with workshop leaders. They responded to interactive elements in the program with alacrity. Our volunteers were also a remarkable mix of people - intellectual, outgoing, approachable, playful and knowledgeable.  The combination of characters created an ease of connection that allowed for a deeper understanding of not only content but of each other. There was, in the most positive way, more laughter during this workshop than in any other.

At one point during a networking exercise that tasked people with building teams that incorporated various skillsets, one participant happened on the idea that the foreigners needed to be snagged - after all, they had international contacts and spoke good English. This led to a scramble to steal foreigners from one team to another. At another point, a spirited debate about planning for business expansion inspired laughs (but then some awkwardness, to be frank) as neither debater was prepared to concede her point.

I should note that I'm extremely sensitive to the potential issues with running and assessing our WIB program. The Choson Exchange full-time staff who designed and run our Women in Business program are male. We're not chest-beating masculine archetypes (apologies to my colleagues if they saw themselves thus), but we are men nonetheless. I justify it by saying it's important and no one else is doing it in the DPRK. Hopefully we accept enough input from our volunteers that we stay honest.

I'm also sensitive to the fact that we are all privileged people - professional, white-collar types - making connections with other lucky, educated people. This is true and not unproblematic, but these are nonetheless connections that need to made.

On May 24th, many male journalists will write about women crossing the the DMZ and will struggle to describe it fairly, without gender creating biases. Regardless of how that turns out - and there are many ways it could be done badly - I hope that some degree of solidarity will be found.

After all, the more of it there is, across national, cultural, ethnic, class and even gender lines, the better.