Sunday, July 20, 2014

An interview with Felix Abt, author of ‘A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom’

From your stay in North Korea, you said that you experienced "a change in the North Korean society." What is the most significant change that has happened during those years?
a) the emergence of a middle class that developed a surprising business savvy and b) a trend to more consumerism. Indeed, more and more people got involved in privately organized trade, transportation, small-scale manufacturing such as furniture production, tailoring, homemade food sales you name it, from the grass root level up to family members of the elite, particularly women. The informal economy has grown substantially over the last decade.

You managed Pyongyang Business School which provided a 'mini MBA' course. You mentioned about the North Korean workers "that The North Koreans, like their southern brethren, were hard workers—and it showed. Laborers sometimes stayed overnight and worked weekends without resting, sometimes even for weeks if an urgent project needed to be finished." According to your experience, how well do you think the North Korean people would adapt to the capitalistic system?
Since the Public Distribution System largely collapsed in the crisis years of the nineties, most people have survived with a host of mostly unofficial private business activities. So they have already gone through a capitalist apprenticeship of sorts. If more reforms accompanied with institution building are carried out even more people will get used to a market economy and to responsible capitalism.

In your book, you wrote: "But when people became so keen on getting a USB to watch foreign movies, I stopped offering expensive presents and gave them those tiny electronics." In North Korea, watching foreign movies is strictly banned. However, in your description, the North Korean people appear to freely enjoy foreign culture and materials. What are your thought on the censorship and government control in North Korea?
Despite censorship, many people have been watching foreign movies and materials. And they liked USB as these tiny electronics, unlike CDs and DVDs, would not get stuck in a DVD-player or a computer in case of a power cut and an inspection.

In your book, you mentioned how you had comparably more opportunities to meet the 'regular people' in North Korea than other foreigners. Did it seem like they actually believe the government-sponsored propaganda? Did they have faith in 'North Korean communism' or 'Juche (self-reliance)' idea?
There are still a lot of people believing in North Korea's ideology. On the other hand there has been a strong trend to consumerism particularly among the emerging middle class but also among the children of the elite which would rather embrace Deng Xiaoping's credo: "To get rich is glorious!"

You spent substantial amount of time in North Korea and also visited the South as well. What seems to be the major difference between the citizens? What is the task to be tackled in order to reduce the cultural gap between the countries after reunification?
When I worked on joint North-South business projects (sand, mining, dairy production, mineral water production on Mount Paekdu etc.) I could feel a strong cultural gap and mistrust. Both sides felt the other side wanted to cheat them, but the misunderstandings had much to do with a lack of knowledge of the other side's thinking and motivations. I as a non-Korean saw myself in a strange position of explaining North Koreans the intentions of South Koreans and vice versa. Unfortunately, this sort of business diplomacy fostering mutual understanding and capacity building came to a complete halt when
hardliner Lee Myung-bak was elected president in South Korea.

"Just finished [Capitalist in North Korea]—fascinating! What an experience. Wow." —Justin Rohrlich, Emmy Award Winner, Head Writer, Minyanville's World In Review

Felix Abt has lived and worked as a senior executive on behalf of multinational groups and smaller enterprises in nine countries on three continents. He was one of the few foreign business people who lived and worked in North Korea - in Felix's case, for seven years!

In North Korea he witnessed MANY FIRSTS that nobody would have expected from the world's most isolated, under-reported and misrepresented country:
The first fast food restaurant selling 'happy meals', the first café selling Western gourmet coffee, the first miniskirts and high heels, the first Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty bags, the legalization of markets and advertising, the first North Korean debit card (with which he went shopping), the first technocrats instead of party committees, running state-enterprises, a foodstuff company's first robot (made by ABB, a multinational group whose chief representative he was in Pyongyang), a multiplication of all sorts of small private business, a massive expansion of private slope farming, the emergence of a fast growing middle class and a drop in poverty, cosmetic surgery in the capital (even though it was illegal), people watching foreign movies and reading foreign books (despite censorship), the first business school (which he co-founded and ran), the first e-commerce (set up by North Korean painters and Felix Abt, selling their paintings around the globe), the first North Koreans dancing Rock 'n Roll (with him), the first foreign chamber of commerce (which he co-founded and chaired), the first North Korean enterprise (a pharmaceutical factory whose CEO he was) winning contracts in competitive bidding against foreign companies, the first software joint venture company exporting award-winning medical software (which he co-founded) and many more.

All this and more you will find in his memoir "A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom"

Visit the author's photo gallery showing a different, changing North Korea:

Re-visit it from time to time as more pictures will be added.

Watch his video "North Korea out of the dark": - below


If you have enjoyed reading this post, please share it with your friends. Patti Roberts - Author and book cover designer

1 comment:

  1. This book deserves a comment... I have been a severe critic of North Korea. After reading the book, I see that there are two sides to the current "divorce" between the U.S. and northern Korea. Additionally, there is a mentality in the North that makes sense if you can visualize things from their point of view. Their experience is not our experience; we have great difficulty understanding it. Mr. Abt's book is a great help in looking at the world from from a radically different point of view.

    While I admit to sometimes imagining that the best solution to North Korea is wiping that particular slate clean, I am left with the suggestion from General Colin Powell that the regime is "not suicidal." More time is needed, and perhaps a little different view from the U.S.

    Thank you, Felix Abt, for sharing a very thought-provoking experience and perspective.


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