Synopses & Reviews
Business in North Korea: a paradoxical and fascinating situation is interpreted by a true insider.
In 2002, the Swiss power company ABB appointed Felix Abt its country director for North Korea. The Swiss Entrepreneur lived and worked in North Korea for seven years, one of the few foreign businessmen there. After the experience, Abt felt compelled to write A Capitalist in North Korea to describe the multifaceted society he encountered.
North Korea, at the time, was heavily sanctioned by the UN, which made it extremely difficult to do business. Yet, he discovered that it was a place where plastic surgery and South Korean TV dramas were wildly popular and where he rarely needed to walk more than a block to grab a quick hamburger. He was closely monitored, and once faced accusations of spying, yet he learned that young North Koreans are hopeful — signing up for business courses in anticipation of a brighter, more open, future. In A Capitalist in North Korea, Abt shares these and many other unusual facts and insights about one of the world's most secretive nations.
"This book challenges many of our views of an allegedly isolated and static country. It is a must-read for everyone who is seriously interested in understanding important aspects of the inner dynamics and the development of North Korea in the 21st century." and#8212;andlt;bandgt;Rudiger Frank, North Korea expert and economics professor, andlt;iandgt;University of Vienna.andlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"andhellip;the book is also peppered with interesting anecdotes and stories about cultural and private life in the DPRK that do not typically receive attention in the western media."and#8212;andlt;bandgt;Curtis Melvin, blogger, andlt;iandgt;North Korea Economy Watchandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"Very few Westerners can match Felix Abt's depth of hands-on business experience in North Korea. Not only similarly adventurous would-be investors and traders in the 'Hermit Kingdom' but also members of my own fraternity of Pyongyang-watchers will want to peruse his useful new book for the otherwise unavailable details and unique insights it provides. Don't look for apologies here."and#8212;andlt;bandgt;Bradley K. Martin, longtime Asia news correspondent and author of andlt;iandgt;Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynastyandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"Felix Abt prefers to stay apolitical and impartial when sharing his thoughts and memories of the seven-year sojourn. From the book we can see that he loves Korea and cares about its people. In his assessments of North Korea's past and present the author approaches all issues from a human (and humanistic) perspective, trying to show life in the country without political or ideological coloring."andlt;bandgt;and#8212;Leonid Petrov, lecturer in Korean Studies, andlt;iandgt;The University of Sydneyandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"Abt Draws from a trove of personal experience to create a vivid account of the people and place. Along the way, Abt addresses big questions such as economic reform and practical ones such as how to use eand#8211;commerce to achieve brand recognition in North Korea."and#8212;andlt;bandgt;Jeff Baron, andlt;iandgt;U.S. and#8211; Korea Institute at Saisandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"No one has [Felix Abt's] credentials: seven years of unparalleled access to most levels of North Koreans in the central government and seven of nine provinces, founder of a Pyongyang Business School and first President of the Pyongyang European Business Association. This "capitalist" attacks conventional wisdom on North Korea; sometimes with blunt force, sometimes with nuance, but always with a businessman's eye and always with a fiery, humor-tempered wit. Indeed, the personal pictures and lively pace of the book combine the feel of a fireside chat with facts one expects from a businessman." and#8212;andlt;bandgt;Roger Cavazos, andlt;iandgt;Associate, The Nautilus Instituteandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"Most notably the book offers at all times a profound commitment to the people of North Korea, essentially arguing that engagement and ideas are the only way to help this country, which would nicely sidestep the need for millions of deaths, billions of military spending and trillions of rebuilding costs which could happen in the case of war, made more likely by the sabre rattling and hitting with sticks which the United States is particularly keen to do." and#8212;andlt;bandgt;Professor Lloyd Pettiford, andlt;iandgt;Nottingham Trent Universityandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"Just finished [Capitalist in North Korea]and#8212;fascinating! What an experience. Wow." and#8212;andlt;bandgt;Justin Rohrlich, andlt;iandgt;Emmy Award Winner, Head Writer, Minyanville's World In Reviewandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"Few westerners have had a similar opportunity to meet and work alongside ordinary North Koreans and#8211; let alone socialize with them and#8211; and his book demonstrates an abiding affection for the people of this benighted state." and#8212;andlt;bandgt;Julian Ryall, andlt;iandgt;South China Morning Postandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
"It's rare indeed to get an insider perspective from one of these agents of change." and#8212;andlt;bandgt;andlt;iandgt;Foreign Policy in Focusandlt;/iandgt;andlt;/bandgt;
About the Author
Felix Abt co-founded the European Business Association as well as the Pyongyang Business School in North Korea. Prior to this, Abt worked in Europe, Africa and Asia as a senior executive for F. Hoffmann-La Roche and the ABB Group. In 2002, ABB appointed him as the Resident Country Director in North Korea. He went on to become a point man for Western investments in the country, representing several multinational corporations and even founding a business of his own. He currently lives in Vietnam, and remains a shareholder in various North Korean joint ventures.
An interview with author Felix Abt:
From your stay in North Korea between the years 2002 to 2009, 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 Peonyang 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 Lee Myung-bak was elected president.