Swiss born Felix Abt recently wrote a book on North Korea that aims to challenges many of the North Korea stereotypes commonly held by Western media. Having spent seven years living and working in Pyongyang as a foreign businessman, Abt’s biography looks at the nuances of North Korean life and their desires to connect with the outside world.
He started off by working for Swiss power and automation specialists ABB, but seeing the opportunity Abt went on to manage a pharmaceutical joint venture, establish the Pyongyang Business School, and raised a family in North Korea’s capital city. Although living alongside what are undoubtedly North Korea’s most privileged communities in Pyongyang, his pharmaceutical company work gave him access to far-flung areas in the countryside well beyond even the most probing tourist itineraries.
His work leading Pyongsu Pharmaceutical Company drew so much positive attention from his North Korean hosts that they even commissioned a propaganda art piece (see above) that featured him alongside North Korean workers. As such, his book offers a unique lens into the life of a foreign business man in Pyongyang and a unique view of daily routine in the DPRK.
Over the coming weeks NK NEWS will be featuring a number of excerpts from Abt’s book to give readers a taste of what life was like raising a family in Pyongyang, how foreigners do business in North Korea, and what effect sanctions have on the daily lives of ordinary North Koreans. But before that, Justin Rohrlich asked Abt to detail some of the challenges associated with working in North Korea and find out what he thought about the prospects for business there moving forward.
“At the beginning, we had philosophical differences about how a business should be run…the North Koreans were used to the socialist way of running a business. I was raised in a market economy.”
Abt’s first obstacle? Marketing.
“I explained that without it, we could never sell what we produce…They would say, ‘No, no, in our country, nobody does that.’ Finally, I said, ‘Okay, let’s start manufacturing and see what happens.’ And nothing happened.”
With a warehouse full of product and no customers, Abt says his employees “started realizing, ‘Maybe he’s right.’”
“When it turned out that I knew what I was talking about, they started agreeing with me,” Abt continues. “Eventually, my staff started suggesting doing ‘Another advertising campaign, and another advertising campaign,’ and that was pretty amazing in itself.”
A Hermetically-Sealed Country? Not Quite.
One traditional stereotype is that North Koreans are a robotic, brainwashed populace with little to no understanding of the outside world. But as Abt confirms, this is simply not true.
“I regularly took my staff to China for business, so they saw what was going on,” he explains. “I brought them to supermarkets, to restaurants; some went to the dentist or the doctor and saw how well-equipped, how well-organized, how competitive they had become — but also how expensive they were.”
Abt educated his employees on the finer points of consumerism before landing in China, describing them as “perhaps a little vulnerable.”
“The shop assistants can be very competitive and aggressive and the North Koreans are not used to this,” Abt says. “So I taught them, ‘Okay, they will set the price very high for you at the beginning, offer them half. When they say ‘no,’ walk away, they’ll call you back and go down a bit, and so forth.’ I must say, these guys learn fast.”
According to Abt, details of these experiences were quickly shared with other North Koreans via Pyongyang’s “bush telephone.”
“Of course they had to make reports to the authorities and security officials when they got home,” Abt tells me, “but they also showed their photos with friends and family. People communicate a lot; you read all these horrible stories and think the people are all afraid to talk to each other because somebody’s always watching, but I did not have this impression, really. Of course they are cautious, but not overly so.”
For this reason, Abt takes exception to reports claiming that the North Korean regime will collapse once information begins “trickling in.”
“If that were true, the system should have collapsed a long time ago,” Abt says. “People know quite well what is going on. From the South Korean soap operas they watch at home to foreign books they read at the university, there is always some information. It’s not a hermetically-sealed country, and it never has been.”
To be sure, North Korea’s reputation as one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships is well-deserved. The country reportedly detains between 150,000-200,000 political prisoners in a vast network of labor camps, though Abt avoids the topic in his book.
“There are surely gulags that may be horrible, but I didn’t come across them so I cannot write about anything I have not seen myself,” he explains.
A Middle Class Emerges
Though far from becoming a global beacon of freedom anytime soon, Abt says that, “by North Korean standards, there has been quite a practical change in society and the economy.”
“Most North Koreans today are involved in some kind of business, so they seem to have an income that allows them to buy their daily necessities in the markets,” Abt tells me. “The most important thing is that a middle class has emerged in the cities; in the countryside, there is more private farming going on — throughout North Korea, you can see plenty of farming going on on the slopes; the flatland is still reserved for the state-run farms.”
Today, the regime is slowly introducing a capitalist component to the agriculture sector.
“Workers on the state farms were promised last year that they will be allowed to sell up to 30% of their harvest to free markets at a premium,” Abt says. “Should that be realized, it’s the beginning of quite a big change, like early reforms in China and Vietnam.”
Is North Korea Now Open for Business?
Not quite. But Abt tells us that he believes opening up to commerce has “become a more important priority” for the North Korean government over the past ten years.
“I’m getting a lot of proactive proposals from the North Koreans, which we haven’t experienced in the past, so there is quite a big change on that front,” Abt says. “My business partners in Pyongyang can use [file-sharing service] Dropbox, they can travel more often now, and more North Korean companies have been allowed, particularly in 2012, to interact with foreign ones.”
Still, obstacles exist for anyone seeking to do business in this most frontier of frontier markets.
Power cuts are frequent, infrastructure is crumbling, and sanctions remain strict. On the other hand, Abt says the hardships he encountered cemented deep personal bonds between him and his colleagues.
“We had to solve practical problems every day; it was a daily struggle that brought us close,” Abt recalls. “We worked hard together, but we also partied together, went to karaoke, had good dinners, went on excursions, and had fun together. I never had the feeling that I was an alien in their eyes or a potential enemy or a spy — the relationship was quite relaxed and friendly, driven by our joint goals.”
So, would he do it again?
“I like to go back from time to time to eat some good food and have a merry evening, but otherwise, of course, I am happy where I am now,” Abt says.
This interview first appeared in the Minyanville Times and have been republished with Abt’s permission.