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.