North Korea is emerging from its time warp and, boy, is it in for a shock
Northerners are insatiably curious about the outside world, but can they discard the past and reconcile with the South?
One of the most startling observations for foreign visitors to North Korea’s capital is the complete absence of commercial advertising, which only amplifies the hermit kingdom’s isolation from the contemporary, outside world.
The lack of cars on Pyongyang’s wide, empty boulevards, the ageing Eastern European trams and the crowds of cyclists on old bikes all add to the sense of stepping into the past.
Although local smartphones are gaining popularity, few pedestrians are glued to their screens as they walk. Yet the repressive state’s efforts to shield its population from foreign influence has not quelled North Koreans’ curiosity about what lies beyond their borders, or their longing to be reconciled again with the South – a theme dominating many songs at social gatherings.
The Korean peninsula and millions of family members were permanently divided by a so-called demilitarised zone after the Korean War of 1950-53. “Reunification is something that should be achieved. The whole nation wishes for it and I believe it will come, it will come in my children’s lifetimes,” Kim Chung-son, a Pyongyang housewife with two adult sons, said.
If diplomacy with the South and the US gathers pace, and the secluded country does start to open its borders, the question of how North Korea could pull itself out of its current Cold War time warp to integrate politically, economically and socially into a modern, hi-tech world is mind-blowing. But preparations are already under way.
The unexpected détente which led to a historic June Singapore summit between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump has boosted international organisations such as the Chosun Exchange, which offers training to budding North Korean entrepreneurs.
“This year, perhaps due to Singapore or other positive movements, we’ve seen a big uptick,” said Ian Bennett, an Oxford-born management consultant who often travels to North Korea for the Chosun Exchange to lead workshops on core business skills that would be vital if the country opens up.
The North’s economic hardships had encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit, he said. “There is a tremendous work ethic, they’re not used to shirking ... English is very well spoken, especially among youngsters.”
However, years of restrictions on internet use and access to only state-approved books would leave North Korean professionals playing catch-up to their foreign contemporaries, Bennett added. Decades of authoritarian rule and limited personal freedoms have also left an impact on the North Korean mindset. “They’re not used to taking initiative, it’s a very vertically organised society, they’re not used to networking.
“And, of course, if things do open up, this will be a country in a state of transition and trauma. Everything will depend on the speed of reunification. I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interests for the walls to come down completely overnight because then they will be swamped; there will be chaos.”
Laura Ashton, a Canadian marketing expert and managing director of Xunama, an organisation specialising in start-ups, held training sessions in Pyongyang and the city of Pyongsong this month. The students were “academically brilliant” and flowing with ideas for new inventions to improve industrial efficiency, nutrition and the environment, she said. But they lacked the business acumen required in the outside world, including basic knowledge of pricing, promotion and product design.
“The biggest issue with opening the doors to commerce is going to be rule of law,” added Ashton. “They just don’t have in place the defined terms for foreigners to confidently be able to do business. You have to have mechanisms ... a shared set of beliefs on what the rules are.”
Paul Tjia, a business consultant, said positive political developments on the Korean peninsula this year had made him “more optimistic” about the country’s international business prospects. Investing may take patience, but for IT outsourcing North Korea was one of the cheapest destinations in the world, he argued.
The regime, which pivoted its policy priorities from military strength to economic growth earlier this year, wants to embrace foreign business opportunities. “We are planning to develop foreign trade, in the field of joint and contractual ventures with businesses from other countries,” said Professor Ri Gi-song, an economic adviser to the government. The country was constructing “world-class tourist resorts” and special economic zones to attract foreign investors once sanctions were lifted, he said.
Although still tightly controlled, Pyongyang is showing small signs of openness. Local SIM cards are now available for foreign visitors arriving at the capital’s Sunan International airport. At the city’s impressive natural history museum, a tourist guide pointed to English signs next to exhibits. “We want our children to learn the scientific terms in English. But our world-class museum is not only for the Korean people but for foreign guests, too,” she said.
Other officials at flagship institutions frequently shown to visitors on guided tours expressed open curiosity about engaging with other countries. “Tell me about the British education system,” said Choe Gun-ju, a senior staff member at the Pyongyang Teacher’s University. “Do you think they would do exchanges?”
But despite the North’s ambition to unify with the South, socially the two countries may struggle at first to integrate. Although both societies cling to conservative family values, the North has remained relatively more sheltered through its digital isolation. Pornography, for example, is banned in the North, in part over fears that foreign intelligence agencies could use it to “subvert” society. One North Korean source was stunned to hear about the “spy cam” epidemic in the South where hidden camera footage of women in bathrooms or during other intimate moments is illegally uploaded to the internet, prompting thousands to take to the streets in protest.
About 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South in recent years, but many have struggled to adjust to the new freedoms and find acceptance. Discrimination against Northerners, who can be identified by their accent, is well documented, and some have spoken of their longing to return.
Katharine Moon, a professor of political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, who is researching issues surrounding unification on the Korean peninsula, said she still saw hope in the shared “cultural fabric” of the two Koreas. Both valued Confucian traditions about the importance of the family and a good education, and shared important holidays. While politics and the economy divided them, “culture is what may help bring them together”.
“To fulfil real unification will require about two generations in a sustained way. But if you’re talking about the formal trappings of reconciliation and unification, where people can travel back and forth, meet their family members, do some mutual investing, go to one another’s universities, hypothetically that could happen in five or 10 years, or less.”
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited