The scene could have been straight out of Silicon Valley. In a start-up space decked out with mini trampolines and decorated with inspirational signs (“Everything you can imagine is real”), a dozen business types learned how to create a “lean canvas.”
“A lean canvas is the perfect way to brainstorm business models,” said Christian Halberg, an investment manager who helps train entrepreneurs. “It's a very systematic process.”
His audience looked at him blankly. For they were not Stanford undergrads dreaming big or programmers at a hackathon. They were North Koreans.
The 12 people — all related to North Korea’s tech sector in some way, either through business or academia — spent two weeks in Singapore this month as part of a training program run by Choson Exchange, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping North Koreans in business, law and economic policy.
Here, in this multicultural, glitzy city-state that is a testament to economic transformation, they have been learning about concepts such as profit margins and online marketing, kickstarter campaigns and unfair advantages.
Although they are all involved in science and technology, they are from a country where the general public has no access to the Internet and where, despite tentative experimentation, the economy is still centrally planned.
The exchange program is aimed at encouraging more of that experimenting, said Geoffrey See, a Singaporean with degrees from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University who started the program in 2009 and quit his high-flying consultancy job at Bain and Co. in 2012 to run it full time.
“Our aim is to support entrepreneurs in North Korea,” said See, 30. “There are two ways we do it: by training entrepreneurs with modern business knowledge, and by trying to shape the business environment so that policy is more favorable to domestic entrepreneurs.”
See got the idea for Choson Exchange — which takes its name from the North Korean word for North Korea — when he went to Pyongyang in 2007 while he was a business school student and had a guide who wanted to become a business leader.
“I was so surprised,” he said. “The guide wanted to know about how I was studying business, what I was learning, and it was very clear that they didn’t have access to [that] kind of information.”
See and Andray Abrahamian, a Briton with a doctorate in Western media and images of North Korea, have trained more than 800 North Koreans over the past six years, in Singapore and in Pyongyang. Both men speak Korean.
The Choson Exchange training, funded by governmental grants and private donations, can help North Korea’s experiment with market principles by arming mid-level officials with real-world skills, Abrahamian said.
“Factory leaders are now being told to find customers and source materials,” he said, “but they’ve been trained to follow the state plan so they need some help.”
Training programs like Choson Exchange’s take place around the world, at Cambridge University in England, among others. There’s also a handful of American-run programs that are not subject to the financial and trade-related sanctions on North Korea, although the organizers tend to be shy about publicity for fear of attracting the attention of people in Washington opposed to any contact with North Korea.
“I don’t understand why some people think it’s immoral or legitimating the regime to help people learn,” said Fred Carriere, a former senior official at the Korea Society who ran educational and cultural exchanges with North Koreans for years. He also worked with the Fulbright program in South Korea in the 1970s and 1980s and recalls Americans who said the United States should have cut ties to a country then run by military strongmen.
“I think outside groups and organizations had a positive effect and were part of the transformation that came about because of the efforts of South Koreans themselves,” Carriere said.
Some analysts contend that these kinds of programs are too small to bring about meaningful change in North Korea — and that’s part of the reason why Pyongyang allows them to happen.
Joshua Stanton, a lawyer and sanctions expert who runs the One Free Korea blog, said that the benefits of such exchanges were dubious.
“It’s difficult to imagine that North Korea would allow anyone but carefully vetted elites or intelligence agents to participate in these programs,” he said. “In North Korea’s political caste system, the elites have a strong interest in protecting the status quo, which makes them the least productive targets for meaningful engagement.”
This month in Singapore, the North Koreans — elite or not — visited incubators in a high-tech zone called “Fusionopolis” and went to networking mixers where people discussed things that were alien to them — such as Instagram and YouTube. A reporter went along on the condition that the North Koreans would not be identified.
The visitors — from a country where the Internet is absent and it can take days just to get a telephone call through to Pyongyang — also enjoyed the fruits of Singapore’s success, marveling at the driverless subway trains and the mind-boggling architecture, and walking past a Ferrari store and Victoria’s Secret in a mall so fancy it contained a canal complete with gondolas.
Some of the participants, the older ones in particular, looked like they had come straight from Pyongyang, with their patterned polyester shirts and Kim badges. Others, taking photos with fancy cameras and drinking coffee at Starbucks, could have been any tourists here.
But they were working hard. At the seminar on start-ups run by Halberg, the investment manager, they learned that the top reason start-ups fail is because there is no market need for their product.
“Think about your own life and problems in your life and how you can come up with a solution,” Halberg said, suggesting problems such as coffee cups that spill and air conditioners that are too noisy.
The North Koreans, whose country faces problems considerably more serious than these, struggled to come up with ideas, but Halberg’s lessons about starting companies with minimal resources gelled. Minimal resources is a subject that North Koreans know all about.
Over a lunch of beef and rice afterward, they discussed what they had learned that morning and how they could apply it at home.
“Some concepts are difficult because our society is structured differently from Singapore. Like e-commerce. We don’t have so many computers in our country,” said one of the participants. “But the philosophy was interesting. If you are rich, you don't need a philosophy, but I am poor so I need one,” he laughed.
But there was one concept they thought they could adopt: freemium. They had learned about the idea of offering free access to software for a set period as a way to lure customers.
“We could do that with cigarettes,” said another participant. “ ‘Here, smoke this one for free.’ Then they would like it and buy a whole pack.”
Then he joined his colleagues outside for a cigarette break of their own. The brand they were smoking? American Spirit.