When Geoffrey See first visited North Korea in 2007, he was surprised that so many young people were interested in business and entrepreneurship. One person in particular caught his attention — a university student who wanted to prove that women could be good business leaders. This spurred him on to find out how he could help business-minded individuals like her. In 2009, See started Singapore-registered, non-profit Choson Exchange, where he now serves as founder and chairman.
Over the last seven years, Choson Exchange has focused on building the North Korean entrepreneurship ecosystem. To do this, it brings volunteers whom are business professionals, economic policymakers or entrepreneurs to North Korea to run workshops in business, economic policy and law. Among its many initiatives, Choson Exchange has a Women In Business programme and a Young Entrepreneurs Network, which are focused on business and entrepreneurship.
“We also bring North Koreans overseas to learn from the start-up scene, as well as from their peers overseas,” See shares. “This is done in the form of short, policy-focused study trips, longer start-up or business immersion programmes and scholarships.”
According to See, such business concepts are still relatively new in North Korea. “We also have a Provincial Development programme, which is more policy and law-focused,” he adds. “More business-friendly regulations, such as those regarding Special Economic Zones and land-use laws, were introduced after participants engaged in the relevant study trips abroad.”
To date, Choson Exchange has trained 1,600 North Koreans and brought 100 of them overseas. Many North Koreans who have completed these programmes have gone on to launch successful businesses, such as an incubator, a supermarket chain and a coffee shop.
As successful as Choson Exchange has been, getting its programmes off the ground is far from easy. To begin with, some North Korean entities can be sensitive to the issues of economics and business training, and believe that North Korea has nothing to learn from the outside world. There are also communication issues as North Koreans have limited access to email and international calls. And, culturally, there is a huge difference in thinking and much suspicion surrounding outsiders, something that can create misunderstanding on both sides.
These challenges have made it hard for Choson Exchange to raise funds for its work. In fact, See says they are facing the most challenging fundraising period in the organisation’s history.
In addition to the general lack of public understanding of North Koreans and the changes in that country, the organisation’s fundraising efforts have been hampered by escalating tensions between North Korea and other countries such as the US, South Korea and China.
Furthermore, “over the last year, South Korea has made it clear that it supports regime change”, See adds. “In turn, North Korea is taking a more hardline security stance that may make getting visas harder for everyone.”
In light of the tense political situation and the fundraising challenges faced by Choson Exchange, See says he is looking to restructure the organisation’s team and programmes this year. He is also looking for ways to support programmes with different revenue models and exploring what those revenue models could be.
Interestingly, the future of Choson Exchange may depend on the changes that are currently taking place in Vietnam, where See is now based. He explains: “Personally, I am interested in Vietnam’s economic development and developing entrepreneurship ecosystem, and I want to see if there’s anything to be learnt from that experience that can be applied to North Korea.”