by Stephen Lee
I have always found it difficult to describe myself. The closest word might be “contrarian”. The tried and tested aren’t for me. I don’t have the qualifications, right connections, and showmanship to thrive under the glare of the media. I am more of an off-the-beaten track, behind-the-scenes sort of guy. When the masses flock to a destination, I run far, far away.
When you tell me, this is a place that hardly anyone has been, I start packing my bag.
The Choson Exchange DPRK Economic Forum in April this year caught my eye. From 20 – 27 April 2019, a group of foreign business experts who were interested in sharing their expertise and experiences with North Korean entrepreneurs were given visas to travel to Pyongyang. Throughout a 4-day programme, these people keen to know and hungry to share information with the North Korean participants had the stage.
I was one of the speakers and my chosen topic was business opportunities in an emerging market . My career spans several decades of working in real estate and investment, so I felt I had something to offer from my experience here.
When I finished my presentation, three groups of North Koreans approached me. They were eager to know more and how I could advise them with their real estate projects. And over the next few days, more groups sought me out and spoke to me about my experience in finding capital investment. They were particularly interested in infrastructure developments like hotels, ports and tourist resorts, a current priority for the North Korean government. I felt a real hunger for growth and change in the country.
That wasn’t so very different from when I first arrived in Myanmar eight and a half years ago. Initially, everything was unfamiliar, but by the eighth year, I was embracing every opportunity. I was glad I saw it through.
The DPRK is the last frontier left in Asia, and to me it felt to me like a country on the brink of change. At this moment, everything seems unfamiliar, even strange. But that could change very quickly. Like Myanmar, I feel that the politics, the people and its culture have not always been portrayed accurately by the international media.
The Choson Exchange DPRK Economic Forum was in April 2019. Choson Exchange’s next forum is in August, and then they will return again in November. For my part, this was an excellent opportunity to find out more about a country that is largely misunderstood. This is your chance to hear it from the experts, and get a glint of the North Korean people and its culture, first hand. There is no country like North Korea now, and there probably never will be again. This was my first trip to North Korea, but I will be going back.
Beyond the forum, I am looking at the long term. As and when the country opens up and sanctions are lifted, I want to be a conduit for foreign businesses and the local experts. I have deep contacts around Asia to help the country in real estate, infrastructure construction, education and media. I will set up a base in Dandong China, the nearest border town to Pyongyang across the Yalu river. It’s a case of wait and see, and having the patience to take the time to learn about the place and its people- but once this mysterious country opens up and sanctions permit, I will be there.