Bidding farewell at Pyongyang Airport was the hardest thing I did in 2018. I felt sad parting ways with our fabulous local Korean translators (one had a PhD from Cambridge, one was a medical doctor and researcher in stem cells, another was a researcher in biotech), the workshop participants, and amazing workshop leaders and facilitators. Also, not forgetting the special permissions obtained to visit places that are out of tourists’ reach.
When I first signed up for the Choson Exchange programme (chosonexchange.org), founded by my friend Geoffrey See in 2007, I did not expect to experience emotional intensity during my visit to North Korea. Having heard so many narratives around this country that the world knows so little about the country due to its controlled information outflow, I was curious and wanted to explore the truth.
The workshop leaders from around the globe flew into Beijing a day before departure to North Korea to pick up our visas. We bonded very well despite our diverse nationalities, cultures, careers and backgrounds. (We were from Britain, Australia, Singapore, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Malaysia, South Africa, France and Spain.)
Our three-day workshop was held in Pyongsong, 30km north of Pyongyang, dubbed as the “Silicon Valley of North Korea”. The venue was the Institute of Natural Energy, State Academy of Sciences. It hosted 80 participants – researchers and scientists – mostly from bio-medical, automation and mechanical engineering fields. This was a golden opportunity to interact with them and to understand their background, culture, business ideas and dreams.
I gave a presentation on “Lessons learnt from rapidly building up a business and managing it remotely”, and was excited to share my experience with the eager crowd. I also conducted a few private consultations with the participants regarding my business model and dished out advice on entrepreneurship.
The workshop leaders gave presentations on other interesting topics. They all were from impressive backgrounds. They made their presentations more interesting by including virtual reality exercises, prototype-building activities and real case studies.
Although we did see some international brands in North Korea, it is still a closed economy and foreign trading is highly discouraged by the government and sanctioned by others. It made me more keen, and I believe the Choson Exchange programme can help the North Koreans be self-sustainable until the economy in the country is geared towards free market trade.
One of the interesting places we visited was Kwangbok Department Store, where I noticed an Ikea section. We also visited Pyongyang Department Store No.1, where I purchased the skincare products my team developed the previous year. They were sold at hotels, duty free shops at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, and department stores. It made me realise there is more talent and potential to be unlocked in North Korea.
During my stay at Pyongyang Hotel, I would get up before sunrise to stroll along the Taedong River and watch the locals doing their morning exercises, playing badminton, and cycling to work. It was exhilarating to be able to stroll the streets of North Korea without a chaperone and experience the daily lives of the locals and blend in.
One highlight was being able to check out the Pyongyang Metro that locals use for daily commuting. The metro system there is the deepest one in the world, some 110m underground; it took us almost 2.5 minutes to reach the platform from ground level.
We visited the largest food-processing factory, Gold Cup Foodstuff Factory, where we saw the production line of local sweets, snacks, food and drinks. I was surprised that instead of being labour-intensive, this food-processing plant mostly ran on machinery and technologies as advanced as found in some First World countries. This shows that the government has given strong support to emerging technologies and will continue to build up their capabilities in the technology and science industry.
We also had the opportunity to dine at Taedonggang Seafood Restaurant, the very same restaurant where the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un had hosted South Korea’s president Moon Jae In two months earlier. This new restaurant opened its doors around September 2018. We even sat in the very same room where they had sat.
What I experienced in North Korea is beyond words. I had expected my trip to North Korea to be very intense, under heavy scrutiny, claustrophobic and fearful, but instead I was relaxed the entire time. From taking early morning and evening walks, strolling along the streets and underpasses, taking the subway and mingling with the locals to learning more about their culture and lifestyle, I enjoyed the fact that everything around me felt so natural and ordinary.