Just over a decade ago, I visited North Korea for the first time as a tourist. This was in 2007, one year after North Korea’s first nuclear test. The country was on heightened alert; paranoia was in the air.
Travelling out of the country by rail, we tourists were warned not to take photos from the train. I ignored the warnings. One of the guides saw me taking photos and told me to put my camera away. Hours later, as we neared the border with China, the train stopped. I saw the same guide walking down the train aisle with four soldiers. He was asking, “Where is the Singaporean?” I was scared. When they reached me, they told everyone else to get off the train except for me. After more than an hour of questioning, the rest of the passengers were allowed back on and the train continued its journey into China.
I left North Korea first feeling afraid that I had gotten my tour guides, who were good people, into trouble; then I was angry that this world where the Cold War had never ended could still exist – a world marred by mutual suspicion and distrust. But I did not realize that trip would later lead to more than a decade of work with non-profit Choson Exchange, training North Koreans in economic policy, entrepreneurship and business.
We all see North Korea through various lenses: through the US-North Korea nuclear stalemate, as a national cause for unification, as a human rights and humanitarian crisis, as a “crazy dictatorship”, or as an impoverished state. But after more than a decade in which we have taken close to 200 volunteers to North Korea to train more than 2,000 North Korean researchers, policymakers, entrepreneurs and businesspeople, I have found a country that - as difficult as it is to work with - is full of individuals with aspirations, ambition, entrepreneurship and ideas. Strange as it might be to some, many of the Koreans we interact with - elite or otherwise - debate and disagree on policies; they want their countrymen, families and children to live better lives; and they hope to travel. It is not a monolithic country. People we teach in one department, company or province have different ideas about what reforms are needed to better the economy, or how their country should interact with the world.
Because this is a country of individuals, every person with whom we engage makes a difference. It is easy to believe that North Korea is such a massive geopolitical challenge that only the governments of the United States, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan can tackle it. But individuals can make an impact at a grassroots level that collectively makes a difference. Many years ago one of our volunteers, a lawyer, visited North Korea to share his expertise in business law, and a local asked him what was meant by the rule of law. Excited by his stories about negotiating joint-ventures (how many lawyers get a rapt audience of a hundred for a workshop on memoranda of understanding?), she said she wanted to be a lawyer and asked if we could bring the study guide for the US law school entrance exam. This North Korean, then a fresh graduate, also said that talking to him had changed her opinion of foreigners.
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We built a network of volunteers to run these programmes in North Korea because we believe that individual grassroot connections can collectively make an impact on the big issue of North Korea’s place in the world, and the myriad of new challenges that will come if the US and North Korea repair their relationship, or if the country opens up or reunifies with South Korea. We want to encourage individuals like you to bring creative solutions to the North Korean issue, to connect with other locals and to engage this challenge in any number of ways. And we believe your ideas and actions will help us resolve this globally important Cold War legacy.
Andrew Kim, who ran the CIA Korea Mission Center and initiated the current rounds of US-North Korea talks, said: "The conflict is not only about denuclearization, it is also about redrawing the geopolitical and geo-economic map for North Korea… Imagine how a successful outcome of the current negotiations would positively impact the people of North Korea, the Korean Peninsula as a whole, the entire region, and the entire world in three to five years.”
It is a global issue, but not one that just belongs to politicians and government officials. This is an issue in which every one of us can make a difference.
The author of this blog is a member of the World Economic Forum YGL 2019 cohort.