Tech me into North Korea

Michelle Yip

Bidding farewell at Pyongyang Airport was the hardest thing I did in 2018.

I felt sad parting ways with our fabulous local Korean translators (one had a PHD from Cambridge, one was a medical doctor and researcher in stem cells, another was a researcher in biotech), the fired-up 80 workshop participants, amazing workshop leaders and facilitators, not forgetting the special permissions to visit places out of tourists’ reach.

When I signed up for the Choson Exchange programme, founded by my dear friend Geoffrey See in 2007, I did not expect to experience emotional intensity during my visit to North Korea.

Having heard too many versions of narratives around this country that the world knows so little about due to their controlled information outflow, I was curious and wanted to explore the truth behind such narratives and also to share my experience and help the Koreans make a difference in their own country.

The workshop leaders from across the globe flew into Beijing a day before departure to North Korea to pick up our visas. Very quickly and surprisingly, we bonded very well despite our diversified nationality (UK, Australia, Singapore, Canada, Netherlands, Switzerland, Malaysia, South Africa, France and Spain), culture, career and background.

Our three-day workshop was held in Pyongsong, 30 kilometres north of Pyongyang, dubbed by some as the “Silicon Valley of North Korea”. The venue was the Institute of Natural Energy, State Academy of Sciences. We hosted 80 participants, mostly from bio-medical, automation and mechanical engineering field of researchers and scientists.

Michelle Yip in Pyongsong
Workshop leaders and participants at the Institute of Natural Energy, State Academy of Sciences in Pyongsong. Image by Michelle Yip

This was a golden opportunity interacting with them to understand their background, culture, business ideas and dreams. I presented on “Lessons learnt from rapidly building up a business and managing it remotely” and had so much joy and excitement sharing my experience with the eager to learn crowd. I even conducted a few private consultations with the participants regarding my business model where I found myself dishing out advice on entrepreneurship.

We had an amazing line up of workshop leaders who presented on the Business Model Canvas, Marketing and Branding, Customer Development, Low-Cost Prototyping with Emerging Technologies, Design Thinking, Digital Business Transformation, Artificial Intelligence, and the Process of Engaging International Business Partners. The workshop leaders – all from very impressive backgrounds – made their presentations more engaging and interesting by including virtual reality exercises, on the spot prototype building activities as well as real case studies.

Our participants had the opportunity to present their business ideas to us. They were divided into 12 teams and were assigned one workshop leader to each where they received mentoring, coaching, advice and assistance.

They presented on business ideas such as invention of a new water filter system, milk bath therapy to cure skin diseases, a recycling PET plant, a microorganism recycling factory, new hydroponics method.

Some teams even built their prototypes and presented it to us. It was indeed an eye-opener and a shocking revelation for me to watch 12 teams present such innovative and viable business products from a country most have perceived to lack in digital technology and creative thinking.

It was very encouraging and rewarding for the workshop leaders to see that the participants were trying to make a difference in their country and that the coaching over the three days was very fruitful and fulfilling.

Although we did see some international brands in North Korea, as it is still a closed economy and foreign trading is highly discouraged by the actions of North Korean government and sanctions by others, I was even more keen and believe that our Choson Exchange programme can help the North Koreans be self-sustainable until the economy in the country is geared towards free market trade.

One of the interesting visits was Kwangbok Department Store, where I noticed an Ikea section, although I am not sure if it was fully licensed. We also visited Pyongyang Department Store No. 1. , where I had the opportunity to buy the skincare products my team developed last year. These products were sold at hotels, duty-free shops at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport and department stores.

These made me realise that there is so much more talent and potential to be unlocked in North Korea.

During my stay at Pyongyang Hotel, I would get up before sunrise to stroll along the Taedong river, watch the locals doing their morning exercises, playing badminton, and cycling to work.

Group photo infront of Ryugyong Hotel
Choson Exchange participants take a group photo in front of the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang. Image by Michelle Yip

It was exhilarating to be able to stroll the streets of North Korea without a chaperone and to be able to experience the daily lives of the locals and blend in.

One highlight was being able to check out the Pyongyang metro that locals use for daily commuting. The metro system in Pyongyang is the deepest metro in the world, approximately 360 feet underground and it took us almost 2.5 minutes from ground to reach the platform.

Michelle Yip
Yip at the Pyongyang Metro. Image by Michelle Yip

We visited the largest food processing factory, Gold Cup Foodstuff Factory, where we saw the production line of local sweets, snacks, food and drinks. I was surprised that instead of being labour intensive, this food processing plant mostly ran on machinery and technologies as advanced as some of the first world countries.

This goes to show that the government has given strong support to emerging technologies and will continue to build up their capabilities in the technology and science industry.

We also had the opportunity to dine at Taedonggang Seafood Restaurant, the very same restaurant where the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un hosted South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in two months ago. This restaurant only opened its doors around September and we even sat in the same room where they were seated.

What I experienced in North Korea was beyond any words could describe. I was of the expectation that my trip to North Korea would be very intense, under heavy scrutiny, claustrophobic and fearful, but instead I was relaxed the entire time.

From taking early morning and evening walks, strolling along the streets and underpasses, taking the subway and mingling with the locals to learning more about their culture and lifestyle, I enjoyed the fact that everything around me felt so natural and ordinary.

“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”

To those who are keen to explore this phenomenal experience, you may reach out to Choson Exchange at team@chosonexchange.org.

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