Normally, returning home from Pyongyang follows a similar pattern. The entire day of flights, airport shuttle buses, trains and taxis; the bewilderment of jet lag; the vague sense of dissociation and culture shock when navigating the London Underground; unlocking my front door and my own bed at the end of it all. Then a couple of days to decompress, do laundry and gather my energy again.
This time it was quite different. Our May 2018 workshop dates were pencilled in last year, at a time when the situation in Korea seemed to be going backwards in the familiar and depressing cycle of rhetoric, nuclear provocation and ratcheting up of sanctions. All the more reason to go and support ordinary entrepreneurs there in their endeavours to start and grown their own businesses, but little reason for optimism.
As we entered the final weeks of preparation for the trip, events on the peninsula gathered pace and it became apparent that we were going to be there at a very significant time indeed. The tone from both sides went from fiery to cautiously conciliatory, as a summit between the leaders went from fanciful outside chance to a seeming dead cert, with Trump clearly relishing the fanfare and grand reveal of the date and location. And then at the end of April, the jaw-dropping scenes of Moon and Kim arm in arm at Panmunjom stepping over the demarcation line together.
Our delegation flew in to Pyongyang a few days later.
Choson Exchange has been running trips like these since 2010 and we find that the mood in the country ebbs and flows in line with international events. This time, if not exactly jubilant, the atmosphere was perhaps cautiously optimistic as North Koreans also struggled to make sense of the speed of developments and where it was all heading.
We were in Pyongyang at the time Pompeo made his surprise visit, and were at the Koryo Hotel just a few hours before his cavalcade swept in and the reception area was locked down. The event made front page news in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper; the first visit of a US Secretary of State to North Korea since Madeline Albright in 2000. The magnitude of such a visit was not lost on our Korean counterparts; one of our translators told me that she had been in kindergarten at that time and remembers her class performing songs to Secretary Albright.
Our workshops this time saw record attendance, with almost 130 people signing up. On day one there was standing room only in the hall in the Grand People’s Study House where we were teaching. How much of this enthusiasm was due to the sense of hope that the country’s economic situation might be improving is hard to say; but anecdotally speaking, the participants I interacted with seemed hopeful that perhaps this time things might be different. With no internet and trading opportunities limited by sanctions, the chance to attend seminars delivered by successful business men and women from other countries is of undeniable value. Government-approved text books only get you so far; unfiltered advice from people who have been there and experienced it first hand goes a lot further.
For this workshop we focused on startup skills, covering a broad range of topics including building your initial idea through design thinking, setting your cost basis and defining your value proposition and price point. One workshop leader talked through the whole process of how she identified a market gap and built demand for her own small business. Another spoke on building a network, and even conducted a (world first!) network study amongst the North Korean participants. We took panel questions at the end of each day and finished up the third day with an interactive session where participants were tasked with designing a logo for their new business idea. Everyone voted for the best design and- despite more than a whiff of electoral malpractice in a few participants’ voting behaviour- a worthy winning team was chosen.
The final day of our workshops coincided with Europe Day, and we were cordially invited to an evening reception at the German Embassy in Pyongyang hosted by the Bulgarians as current holders of the presidency of the Council of Europe. We spent a pleasant evening mingling with ambassadors, embassy staff and NGO workers, and even the most world-weary of Korea old hands seemed quietly optimistic. Pompeo flew out that night with the three released American prisoners in tow, and the following day Trump announced the Singapore summit plans.
So, coming home has been a little different this time. Even with the will-they-wont-they carnival of the Singapore summit, as an NGO which visits North Korea several times a year and has taken more than 100 North Koreans to Singapore to study mini-MBA programmes, we have been getting intense media interest. I haven’t really had time to unpack yet and I have been back almost two weeks.
Whilst it is anyone’s guess whether the recent developments will lead to concrete change or just another false dawn, I remain convinced that the need for what we do remains as strong as ever.
No sooner has one trip finished then we start recruiting workshop leaders for the next. We will be going back in August. Here’s hoping the current momentum continues.
Interested in visiting North Korea
and helping local entrepreneurs succeed?
Make this year special and join our next trip!