Travel

I was recently in Pyongyang, at the invitation of the Korean Association for Economic Development, to participate in a two-day conference on special economic zones, co-sponsored by the University of British Columbia. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, which I am still trying to process. Members of our group who have previously visited the country say they perceived more openness and less fear among the people than in the past, but it remains a highly regimented society. Visible signs of commerce are completely absent. The only billboards show pictures of the Great Leader and Dear Leader or revolutionary slogans accompanying images of ferocious soldiers bayoneting the imperialists. Not a corporate logo in sight. Shops – the people do have to buy necessities and the occasional small luxury – are utilitarian, and their signage, though I can’t read Korean, is drab and functional: “Bread.” “Clothing.” “Furniture.” It may be the only country in the world without Coca-Cola.

Our hosts have asked me to return, to visit their zones and provide some advice, but they are not willing to pay anything close to my normal consulting fees. One thing they will have to learn as they try to engage with the outside world and attract foreign investment – if indeed that is what they do intend – is that foreign experts (I modestly include myself in that category) expect to be paid. It’s not as if the North Koreans are starved for funds or foreign exchange. The fleet of spanking new Mercedes S-Class sedans and SUVs that chauffered our group around the city, the big bottles of cognac and 18-year-old Scotch in the state-owned restaurants we were invited to, where the elite go to enjoy themselves, not to mention North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, are proof of that. Of course, to the degree that the country can rejoin the international community on less confrontational terms, it can go down the path well trodden by developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and ask for assistance from international donors to pay for my services.

Two weeks ago I was interviewed about my experiences on The Manzella Report, an international business news and opinion magazine that publishes interviews on YouTube. You can view the interview here: Are the North Koreans Ready for Change?

Like the North Koreans, I too may not be ready for prime time, but I am working on it.

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I returned to the Karibe Hotel late yesterday afternoon to find it transformed from the center of a global news event back into a quiet refuge. Jean-Claude Duvalier, the former Haitian dictator who had taken up residence at the Karibe on his return last Sunday from 25 years of exile, had slipped out discreetly. The journalists in their many-pocketed vests, the luckiest of whom had for several days crowded the hotel lobby and bar, drinking, smoking, interviewing one another, and typing away on their MacBooks, had vanished, as had the less lucky ones, camped outside. The TV sound trucks, the UN armored vehicles and troops, and the police had packed up their guns and satellite dishes and telephoto lenses and decamped. The steel gates that had been drawn across the hotel entrance had been removed, as had the security people manning them in the manner of nightclub bouncers, determining who would be allowed to come in. [click to continue…]

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In Iceland, where I have spent the past week, it is illegal to name your son Dweezil or River or your daughter Moon Unit or Fifi Trixabelle.  The Government has long maintained a list of legal first names, all of which come from the Norse (Thorgil, Gunnar, Guðrún) or Biblical (Jón, Margret, Kristjana) traditions. There is also a list of middle names, many of which refer to places. For most of Iceland’s history, people had only one name, sometimes with a nickname (Eirik Raud, or Erik the Red) or a patronymic (Leifur Eiriksson, meaning Leif, son of Eirik). [click to continue…]

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First we had the Shoe Bomber, and now we have the Underpants Bomber, at least according to the pictures in the New York Times, which showed parts of the incendiary device still attached to the man’s undershorts, conclusively answering the question “Boxers or Briefs?” and offering, perhaps, a little more information than some of us need.

Now we learn of new, apparently capricious and random, security procedures and restrictions imposed on already suffering air travelers. Since I spend a good part of my professional life at 30,000 feet, this is of more than academic interest. I’ve already read about full body searches of Orthodox priests and five-year-old girls and international flights on which the entertainment system has remained shut off, though that is certainly preferable to screening Hannah Montana. I have seen other stories of flight attendants ripping blankets and pillows out of passengers’ hands and forcing them to remain seated for the last 90 minutes of flight, and of seven-hour delays going through airport security as each passenger is frisked.  Maybe this is intended to reassure the flying public that Homeland Security has everything well under control, but to me it smacks of panic and desperation and a complete lack of leadership and vision. [click to continue…]

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The last several weeks have been busy. I am not even over jet lag from my two-week trip to Indonesia and Thailand, from which I returned last Sunday, and I leave tomorrow morning for Senegal. Naturally, I would rather think about my contribution to the world’s economy than about my ever-expanding carbon footprint. At least I am not traveling around the world to attend conferences on climate change, which would be a touch too absurd even for my tastes.

I spoke to quite a few business and government people in both Indonesia and Thailand, and it seems clear to me that Asia will lead the world out of recession. Thailand has been suffering a political crisis for several years now, marked by a military coup, rioting, the takeover by demonstrators of the country’s main airport, and the abrupt dismissal of two Prime Ministers, but its economy seems to sail on, unperturbed. The nation’s factories are humming, building cars and auto parts, microprocessors, and all kinds of industrial equipment and consumer goods, and potential investors are lining up at the gates, determined not to miss the next big thing. [click to continue…]

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