In 2016, Geoffrey See was jolted awake on a flight run by North Korea’s national carrier as smoke swirled through the cabin. Passengers sensed that the aircraft was descending rapidly, yet their panic was met with preternatural calm by a crew who insisted nothing was amiss.
The travelers sat in white-knuckled fear as the plane made an emergency landing. Hours later, they were forced to make their own alternative plans to continue the journey, with no compensation or explanation offered. The lack of communication didn’t surprise See, who was flying on state-run Air Koryo from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
For See — who runs Choson Exchange, a non-profit group that trains North Koreans on entrepreneurship — the experience was an illustration of the lack of transparency and accountability commonplace in the hermit kingdom. It’s also a sign of hurdles awaiting investors in the Asian nation as Kim Jong Un seeks to overhaul one of the world’s poorest economies in the wake of a historic summit in Singapore with U.S. President Donald Trump.
“North Korean officials typically only give you the information they think you need, and not what you seek,” said See, who got the idea for his organization in 2007 after a trip to Pyongyang. “This needs to change when the market opens up. There’s always that cultural gap, and given its paranoia, the country will take a long time to adjust to the way of doing business in the outside world.”
See, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and received a masters from Yale University, conceived Choson Exchange after meeting a North Korean student who said she aspired to enter the business world to show that women can be good leaders. Since 2009, his group has brought more than 100 North Koreans to Singapore for them to learn more about modern and developed economies.
Trump and Kim signed a declaration on Tuesday that North Korea would work toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” while leaving undefined the path to eliminating Pyongyang’s atomic arsenal. The Asian nation’s leader has previously indicated that he’s seeking a deal to ease sanctions that have squeezed his country’s economy.
Even if trade restrictions are loosened and the economy gradually opens, challenges abound for potential investors. The country’s ranked one of the lowest in the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International. New York-based Human Right Watch says that the government maintains an environment of fear and control via arbitrary arrests, torture in custody, forced labor as well as public executions.
A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on North Korea said that systematic and widespread human rights violations committed by the government included enslavement, rape, forced abortion, and other sexual violence, and constituted crimes against humanity.
Yet the regime — run by the Kim family for several decades — hasn’t stamped out its citizens’ entrepreneurial spirit, according to See. He recalls meeting the student on his first trip to Pyongyang in 2007, when he asked her what she would like from abroad. She asked for an economics textbook.
“I went in there with thoughts that it’s a communist country, that people were not interested in business, that it was a state-run economy,” said See, who believes he’s been able to gain access to the reclusive state because he’s from Singapore, which is seen by the regime as a neutral country. “But when you meet the younger generation of North Koreans, on the ground, you’d be surprised by their aspirations.”
In 2015, See’s Choson Exchange conducted a “mini MBA,” bringing 11 North Koreans for a 4-month trip to Singapore and Malaysia. The attendees returned home to mentor up to 17 startup initiatives for businesses including consumer products, electrical appliances, and even an online community for mothers to share ideas and tips.
As for the areas that offer most potential in North Korea, See says the retail consumer sector as well as infrastructure development for roads, railways and housing can provide opportunities for foreign companies looking to do business in the nation. There’s also demand for ways to improve the country’s manufacturing and use of technology, he said.
When Trump Met Kim: In Pictures
“Foreign investors looking to do business in North Korea will have to take a long-term approach, meaning at least 10 years,” said See. In the previous decade, when Kim’s father was still in power, the regime would be open to entrepreneurs creating and running successful businesses one moment, only to clamp down on them in the next, he said.
Under Kim Jong Un, the government has relaxed its grip over businesses, though reform remains slow, according to See. “People are more confident about building and growing a business without the fear of it being taken away from them, and more innovative and bigger businesses are emerging as a result.”