Gonzalo Muñoz, from Spain, joined Choson Exchange’s April 2019 DPRK Economic Forum as a workshop leader. The presentation he led was focused on Strategic Marketing, covering the fundamentals of marketing illustrated through several case studies. Here he reflects on his experiences on what was his second trip to North Korea.
For as long as I can recall, I have been interested in history, politics and Asia, but it was back in 2012 when my interest in the Korean peninsula emerged. Watching the Crossing the Line documentary by Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours and reading a book about US citizens who wandered north of the 38th parallel in the Sixties, meeting friends from South Korea as well as conducting an internship in Ulsan (ROK) the summer of 2013 really ignited my curiosity and hunger to know more about North and South Korea, the dynamics between both countries as well as the role the different players in the region play.
With the purpose of knowing first hand about North Korea from the local perspective,I joined a tourist trip in 2014. I went to some of the main cities such as Pyongyang, Nampo and Kaesong, and visited some of the main attractions. Although eye-opening, it left me wanting to return not just to see the tourist sites but to interact directly with North Korean people.
Looking for ways to ways of getting involved in the country and have an impact, I came across Choson Exchange (CE), an organisation that fosters civil society through holding workshops in North Korea for local entrepreneurs. The dates of earlier CE workshops didn't work out for me, but the DPRK Economic Forum in April 2019 was perfect.
The workshop took place in the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang and allowed us to mingle and interacting with local entrepreneurs. As we worked through their business plans with them, I could really see that what we were doing was having a positive impact. Outside of the workshops I learnt so much about the country and its economy as we visited several off-the-beaten-path spots, such as a company that develops 3D media technology, a sneakers manufacturing plant and the country’s leading universities for teachers.
The forum itself lasted 4 days. About 80% of the time was taken up with workshops and lectures led by the international volunteers, and the other 20% was spent mentoring a group of 6-8 locals on their business ideas. These days were superb and super enriching. Presentations were delivered on a wide variety of topics- areas as diverse as farming, M&A, turning local products into potential future international hits, tourism and group dynamics. The local North Koreans I had the honour and opportunity to interact with were brilliant, proactive and very engaging. They were tremendously entrepreneurial, ambitious, and interested in knowing more and learning new things that eventually could allow them to find success.
This experience allowed me to discover a new North Korea.. Many of the common myths and rumours turned out to be nonsense; tired old tropes such as “you can only visit two subway stations, all the rest do not exist / the passengers are all actors” or “the shopping malls are mock ups, there is nothing inside”. We visited several subway stations, the passengers were normal people just going about their daily business travelling from A to B, the shopping malls were buzzling, and we discovered an interesting restaurant and coffee culture scene. Additionally, it allowed me to understand the country better, its opportunities and challenges.
For me the best and most important part was simply, the North Korean people I met. Putting politics aside, at the end of the day, we are all people. We have the same interests, inquietudes and fears. This was by far my greatest takeaway from the experience, having the chance to discover the human side of the country, something the media and popular literature sometimes fails to grasp.
If you are looking for a unique experience, making a difference, and meeting amazing individuals, join the next Choson Exchange program!
Closing this blog with a great thanks to all who made it happen, especially Ian Bennett, Ian Collins, Alvaro, Julian, and of course the organisation’s founder, Geoffrey.