North Korea: Entrepreneurs in Pyongyang

Design thinking workshop in the most isolated country on planet earth
Saturday, May 5, 2018 to Saturday, May 12, 2018

Why would anyone want to visit North Korea?

Only a few people ever asked me: “Why would you even go to North Korea?” When you look at my profile, you quickly find out that I am a curious adventurer with a passion to meet people all around the world. And because North Korea is a real place with living human beings, I am naturally interested in it. After visiting nearly all other nations in Eurasia, North Korea was still a black box. The country is known for its totalitarian regime and the extreme isolation of its people. It is pretty hard to get in and even harder to break out. As a consequence, this country looks and feels like no other on earth. And that makes it even more fascinating to people like me!

By the way, the country’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Well okay, but how can you visit North Korea?

The two consequential questions are, however, much more interesting: “How is it possible to visit North Korea and how can you prepare for it?” Believe me, I was wondering exactly the same. Listening to international news, friends, and family, it seemed nearly impossible to visit the DPRK. I found out that there are two relatively simple ways to do so: guided tours and volunteering. Many call these tours propaganda. But quite frankly, I could say exactly the same about any tourist place because they do not represent everyday life. Nobody is honestly interested in the real people behind the scenes of a Disney World or a Cruise Ship, right? Well, I am, but never mind.

So, I chose the second option and volunteered with an international non-profit organization. From the very first touch, I was surprised about the smooth and simple process. They took care of everything, made sure I comply with the country’s regulations and provided me a group visa to enter. All I had to do, was picking up the ready visa at the DPRK embassy in Beijing. The next day, we embarked on an Air Koryo plane and flew all together to Pyongyang. In North Korea, we arrived at a brand-new international airport with standard security measures. Officials just made sure we don’t import any Bibles or (other) regime critical material we could distribute to the people. Yeah, the regime has a Bible-phobia, maybe because Christians were very successful in converting poor people around the world. I did not intend to do so, I had no problems.

The most extreme Design Thinking Workshop

When I was still working pro bono for a social enterprise in India, I found a small non-profit organization engaged in Pyongyang. Choson Exchange is based in Singapore and organizes entrepreneurial workshops for highly ambitious Koreans inside the DPRK. Yes, you just read these lines correctly, there are real entrepreneurs and startups inside of North Korea! Since the Korean War, the DPRK was highly ambitious building a socialist utopia based on an egalitarian society. Over the years, their dream slowly crumbled and the economic crisis between 1994 and 2000 hit them hard. In a nationwide famine, half a million Koreans starved to death. Since then, the leaders had no choice but to allow kind of a liberal market and private business. They don’t want to call it that way, but that’s what it effectively is. All official enterprises must be approved by the government and have to hand a contribution to the state. I was intrigued to call this fee taxes, but my local translator insisted that it is not the same.

Nevertheless, I joined Choson Exchange together with a group of fellow professionals, to host a one-week workshop for entrepreneurs. As an overarching theme, we chose the startup canvas model. Having a professional background in user experience design and product innovation, my personal ambition was to jump-start their creative ideation process. Even more, because out-of-the-box thinking and creativity are not encouraged in the DPRK. I prepared an interactive workshop and taught a room full of grown-up North Koreans how to use the Design Thinking Method to innovate products and services. The audience was evenly mixed between man and woman, and most likely upper-class Koreans. Not many of them spoke English, so a domestic interpreter made sure they can all understand me. I guess she not only translated word by word but also adapted to local culture. The audience was truly engaged and, in the end, we had a lot of fun together.

Everyday Live in the most isolated Country

In addition to these workshops, our small group was able to visit many places in Pyongyang. I had no idea what to expect and was ready for the worst. Strolling through the city center felt a bit weird at first, we were in North Korea after all! But we quickly got used to it and there were no problems at all, nobody talked to us, no police harassed us. As you can see in my postcards, we were able to take many pictures and even videos. The first thing that caught my attention were the empty streets. Most roads look exactly the same as everywhere else (wide with multiple lanes), but there were practically no motorized vehicles. Instead, people drive around on bicycles or have to walk long distances. The few public buses and trams were always packed with people.

My personal highlights were a ride in the metro and a visit to the shopping mall. Much like in Russia and Belarus, the metro stations are built as a combination of bomb shelters and monumental socialist artworks. Commuters are in a rush but still had the time to read the latest news from a public newspaper stand (no kiosk, just the paper behind a glass). Funny enough, the operating trains were imported from Berlin and still have some German graffiti engraved. Pyongyang operates several multi-level department stores with domestic but also international products. Honestly, they look and feel like anywhere else in the world. One day, we even bought local Korean food in a small store and had a relaxed picnic in a public park. It’s just very sad to know that the majority of Koreans can still not afford these basic products. Outside the capital, life must be very different. Unfortunately, we couldn’t discover this part of the country

Staged perfectionism in North Korea’s Capital

Besides everyday life in Pyongyang, we were also invited to a few surreal places. Our group could visit a central Kindergarten, the University of Foreign Studies, and a Children’s Hospital. I have never seen such disciplined children, behaving like miniature adults, and playing only in designated areas. They were well trained to fit in and become the next elite, continuing the nation’s legacy. At the University, we had a short chat with the English teacher and his students. It was just a brief small talk, but it revealed the same topics all teenagers face at their age: hobbies and discovering the opposite sex.

The Children’s Hospital was just too perfect to be real. With a lot of pride, the headmaster demonstrated their latest technology. Don’t ask me for the exact models but they looked exactly the same as in Switzerland. I can only hope, that they operate these machines for real and not just use them to show off foreigners. They even had a medical meeting with another hospital, using a video conference system. I find this quite impressive, as Zoom, Google Hangouts, nor Microsoft Teams run in North Korea. All in all, the hospital was very quiet, clean, and neat. I’m sure it is a real hospital but I doubt that ordinary people will ever get proper treatment there.

Cultural Excursion outside of Pyongyang

Most of our trip, we spent within the capital city of Pyongyang. So, I was very excited about our day trip excursion to an important Korean cultural heritage site. In a small bus, we drove to the Tomb of King Tongmyong and visited the Chongrungsa Buddhist Temple. According to history books, these heritage sites are 2,000 years old and belong to the founders of the Goguryeo Kingdom. During that time, Buddhism was widespread and practiced over centuries in Korea. This is a unique place, where history becomes alive again. It clearly shows that there was a different time before modernity, globalization, and the socialist movement.

Because of my global travels, I have become more and more interested in history and culture. Seeing similarities in our past, makes me feel connected with local people on a much deeper level than before. To my relief, this important ancient place was beautifully restored and is now protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. Maybe one day, people from South Korea are also able to visit this site and admire their mutual ancestors.

North Korean people are not all too different

On my trip to the DPRK and Pyongyang, I have learned a lot about Korea. Before arriving in North Korea, I was thrilled and afraid at the same time. I saw it as a unique opportunity to finally get an inside impression, instead of listening to people who have never been there (oh yes, and that also includes western media). Setting your own foot into such a place is electrifying. Instead of just speculating from the outside, I was able to see life from the inside. Even though it might just be a biased selection, it gave me a better understanding. The people inside the DPRK, first and foremost, see themselves as Koreans. Most of them understand their situation in isolation and are very curious about life outside. But that does not hinder them to continue living on, practice their culture, even doing business, and being proud of their food. I feel honored, to have met real North Koreans in their own country and had the chance to teach them something new. I would do it again.

Many thanks to the people of Choson Exchange who made this unique experience possible.

My waypoints on this journey

Pyongyang Sunan International Airport - flying from Beijing to the capital of North Korea with Air Koryo
flying from Beijing to the capital of North Korea with Air Koryo
Pyongyang by Night - one of the darkest capital with very little options to go out at night
one of the darkest capital with very little options to go out at night
Pyongyang - exploring DPRK's capital (North Korea), one of the world's least visited cities
exploring DPRK's capital (North Korea), one of the world's least visited cities
Arch of Triumph - a huge monument representing Korea's resistance against Japan in WW2
a huge monument representing Korea's resistance against Japan in WW2
Juche Tower - a huge monument representing a big idea about equality and self-reliance
a huge monument representing a big idea about equality and self-reliance
Mangyŏngdae Kim Il-sung's Birthplace - a beautiful park, nationally celebrated by the DPRK (North Korea)
a beautiful park, nationally celebrated by the DPRK (North Korea)
The Ideals of Korean Workers Party Monument - hammer, sickle and brush representing workers, farmer and intellectuals
hammer, sickle and brush representing workers, farmer and intellectuals
Choson Exchange Workshops - bringing the Design Thinking Methodology to North Korea
bringing the Design Thinking Methodology to North Korea
Grand People's Study House - preparing myself for a unique workshop in Pyongyang's pompous library
preparing myself for a unique workshop in Pyongyang's pompous library
Gumrung Coffee - best coffee shop in Pyongyang with a great selection and international prices
best coffee shop in Pyongyang with a great selection and international prices
Mansudae Hill Grand Monument - Bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and 229 revolutionary soldiers
Bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and 229 revolutionary soldiers
Pyongyang Circus Theater - watching acrobats flying through the arena and extreme joggling on stage
watching acrobats flying through the arena and extreme joggling on stage
Kwangbok Department Store - shopping for food, electronics, cosmetics and clothes in North Korea?
shopping for food, electronics, cosmetics and clothes in North Korea?
Moran Peak - having a relaxed picnic in the green paradise in the heart of Pyongyang city
having a relaxed picnic in the green paradise in the heart of Pyongyang city
North Korean Food - pretty delicious and similar to South Korea, but not too much diversity
pretty delicious and similar to South Korea, but not too much diversity
North Korean People - very homogenous, a bit shy, hard-working but otherwise really friendly
very homogenous, a bit shy, hard-working but otherwise really friendly
Pyongyang Cultural Exhibition - one of many places of political propaganda but also some culture and arts
one of many places of political propaganda but also some culture and arts
Pyongyang Underground - public transportation with beautiful metro stations and old German trains
public transportation with beautiful metro stations and old German trains
University of Foreign Studies - sitting in an English class and talking with students in a grim building
sitting in an English class and talking with students in a grim building
Pyongyang Children's Hospital - modern technology in a friendly environment for the country's elite
modern technology in a friendly environment for the country's elite
Kim Jong Suk Textile Mill - old machines producing textile fabrics like a century ago in Europe
old machines producing textile fabrics like a century ago in Europe
Kim Jong Suk Apartments - basic facilities for hard-working factory employees of the textile mill
basic facilities for hard-working factory employees of the textile mill
Kyongsang Kindergarten - where performance drills are more important than kids fooling around
where performance drills are more important than kids fooling around
Arch of Reunification - one man's great dream to unify a divided nation without filling the gap
one man's great dream to unify a divided nation without filling the gap
Chongrung Temple - a not very authentic Buddhist site in a mostly irreligious North Korea
a not very authentic Buddhist site in a mostly irreligious North Korea
Tomb of KingTongmyong -
grave of the Goguryeo Kingdom's founder, Korea's ancient ancestors
Koryo Hotel Pyongyang - meeting a Monty Python star in North Korea's prestigious twin-towered hotel
meeting a Monty Python star in North Korea's prestigious twin-towered hotel
Pyongyang Skyline - impressive and colourful buildings are scattered all over North Korea's capital
impressive and colourful buildings are scattered all over North Korea's capital