Author: Stephanie Ham
Note: This is a brief overview of our perspective on developing North Korea’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. To learn more and request a copy of the full report, please contact CEteam@chosonexchange.org. We only share the report with a limited set of partners, and apologies in advance if we are unable to send it to you.
As the Ecosystem Strategy Lead at Choson Exchange, my role was to understand North Korea’s business landscape, research the dynamics of successful entrepreneurial ecosystems across the globe, and develop a perspective on how Choson Exchange can best support North Korean entrepreneurs by helping our partners develop an ecosystem in North Korea.
Our team conducted extensive secondary research as well as significant experiential and primary research. Given North Korea’s truly unique and challenging business environment, a large part of the work included utilizing our multi-year in-country expertise, interviewing North Korean researchers, and getting feedback from our North Korean partners to understand how to translate lessons from across the globe into a suitable solution in North Korea.
In order to make this project tangible and develop a tailored roadmap, we also needed to choose a strategic location. The team decided to focus our efforts on the special economic zone, Unjong Park. Given the park’s proximity to the large commercial hub of Pysongsong, its large base of knowledge-based talent (a number of research institutes and a top tier university are located here), its current infrastructure, as well as its on-going development as a result of our work, we believe the Unjong Park special economic zone is a viable location to develop an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Unjong Park is found on the border of Pyongsong city and is about 30km away from
Pyongyang and 30 km from Sunan International airport
Using Victor Hwang and Greg Horowitt’s book on building successful entrepreneurial ecosystems, The Rainforest, as a framework, we developed a comprehensive assessment of the current status of Unjong Park’s ecosystem elements, identified gaps, and recommended projects to fill those gaps in the next five to ten years.
We believe that by identifying the gaps and recommending tactical projects to move forward with, Choson Exchange and its donors will be able to build on the exciting moment we see developing in Unjong Park as a result of our work.
Over the past four years, Choson Exchange has been investing its education, training, and consultation efforts on both top-down (macro-level) and bottom-up (micro-level) forces that shape the overall economic and business environment in Pyongsong/Unjong area. At the macro-level, the objective is to educate provincial policymakers and regulators on the importance of entrepreneurship and create a consensus on supporting entrepreneurship. On the micro-level, the objective is to support North Korean entrepreneurs with training, networking activities, and knowledge. We believe in creating the first generation of start-ups and pursue proof of concepts that can catalyse changes in policy, culture or regulations.
What began in 2014 with high-level discussions with researchers on technology commercialization and incubation has translated into active startup mentorship in an incubator-style program. As featured in one of our Pyongsong Startup Bootcamp blog post, the North Koreans who had joined CE’s overseas programs in Singapore are now coaching and mentoring their colleagues, teaching them skills including how to develop product ideas, gather feedback from prospective customers, refine business models, prepare financial projections, and create marketing strategies. They are also building a network among budding entrepreneurs - a critical element for fostering startup communities.
In our 2015 consultation with the Unjong Park management, we also encouraged the inclusion of domestic firms within the special economic zone initiative. The new master plan of the park is expected to include domestic startups and new incentive models for entrepreneurs.
It is critical to not let this type of micro and macro level progress stagnate. We recommend continuing training initiatives as a main component for success in the ecosystem. We also recommend building on the momentum of the CE-trained incubator team and developing a physical incubator space to serve as a “community center” for entrepreneurs - holding events, activities, consultations and networking which are critical elements of community building. We also see value in expanding our relationship with research institutes and developing accessible in-country materials for our partners to utilize.
The progress we have seen in just a few years with the incubator management team, the experimentation from our North Korean partners, and the entrepreneurial drive we see in our participants are promising baby steps towards a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Stephanie Ham externed with Choson Exchange in the Fall of 2017 as the Ecosystem Strategy Lead and has been involved with CE since 2015. She is currently a Senior Associate Consultant at Bain & Co. in Dallas, Texas with strategy and operational experience in the telecom, consumer technology, and retail sectors.
To learn more and request a copy of the full report, please contact CEteam@chosonexchange.org.