|Billboards for North Korean companies stand next to a monument to the Three Revolutions. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
By Jon Dunbar
Doing business in North Korea has got to be incredibly complex. Their economic system is unrecognizable compared to ours, and even buying a drink can be frustrating.
I recall on my first visit to Pyongyang in August 2010, one store in the Yanggakdo Hotel had a complicated payment system, where money was exchanged here, and products were exchanged safely over there. It felt almost like they were quarantining us financially, afraid of capitalist contamination. Also, oddly, it seemed like they weren't very exact with change, often erring in my favor. There were souvenir shops for us wherever we went, but we never handled the local currency, instead transacting in U.S. dollars, Chinese yuan or euros.
On Aug. 15 we visited Moranbong Park, where thousands of Pyongyang citizens were celebrating the liberation of Korea. They were having family picnics and dancing in the grass, welcoming members of our group to dance along with them.
It was a hot day, so I stopped by a cart to buy a drink ― but the woman running it vigorously waved me away. I was told she couldn't sell to foreigners, so I would have to suffer. But instead, one of our Korean guides used his own money to buy me a drink. He made sure I paid him back later, back in the hotel bar over draft beers.
|A vendor in Moranbong Park, Pyongyang, refuses to sell to foreigners, August 2010. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
One night we visited Rakwon Department Store, which had an even better microbrewery than the Yanggakdo. Michael Spavor, who arranged our visit in coordination with Koryo Tours, arranged to meet a European expat living in Pyongyang, working for a local app developer. He was free to move around the city by subway, by car or just walking, but we were under the careful watch of our guides who were alarmed by our encounter with a fellow foreigner.
Before I departed for North Korea, I had emailed Orascom, the Egyptian company that was at the time reportedly working on outfitting the top levels of the Ryugyong Hotel with cellphone towers. They didn't reply in time, but after I was back in China and able to check my email, there was a message waiting for me saying they "would like to know the exact date you will be in PY to arrange a meeting with the CEO." So close.
After I returned to the South, I met up with a Korean friend at a restaurant in Sinchon, Seoul, to tell her about the trip, and I remember how surreal it felt to be able to do all that so freely.
It took me eight years to return, partly because Michael was busy hobnobbing with Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un, partly because I had to work up the nerve. Finally in September 2018 I couldn't stay away any longer and I joined him on a cultural delegation arranged by his company Paektu Cultural Exchange. I found Pyongyang had changed significantly in the new leader's hands, compared to how I'd remembered it during the latter years of his father Kim Jong-il's reign.
The city, always breathtaking, looked much improved. The Ryugyong Hotel's exterior was now completely finished, and one side was outfitted with a massive LED display that showed 105-story-tall light shows once the sun set. The streets were busier now, filled with private cars as well as tons of taxis, while there was still widespread cycling infrastructure. New developments such as Mirae Scientists Street and Ryomyong New Town added dynamism to the skyline. When our bus took us through Mirae Scientists Street, we passed a couple North Korean men, one holding up a U.S. dollar bill. I don't recall complicated procedures to make simple purchases, although we still traded in foreign currency.
On our first full day there, we visited the Pyongyang International Autumn Trade Fair, held in the Three Revolutions Exhibition grounds. It was a gated compound, and as our bus headed in we could see countless citizens lined up to get inside.
|Inside the Pyongyang International Autumn Trade Fair in September 2018 / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
Once our bus parked, we were free to wander anywhere and buy anything. This event was held twice a year so it was clearly a big deal locally, but to me it was a chance to blend into the crowds of North Koreans and go shopping. There were reportedly over 320 companies according to the Korean Central News Agency, and many came from overseas, mostly China. They sold dozens of detergent brands, and toothpaste was a big thing there. A kitchen showroom was set up right in the middle, showing very elegant designs.
|Women shop for Chinese goods at the Pyongyang International Autumn Trade Fair in September 2018. / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
Me, I was interested in what the Koreans were selling. I bought North Korean gochujang (pepper paste), cactus juice and packaged meals including an excellent pollack soup, later served at an American Thanksgiving potluck in Seoul. And I bought consumer electronics: a USB drive, an Achim-brand smartwatch and a tablet computer. I also bought Bomhyanggi hand cream for a coworker who requested North Korean cosmetics. I paid for purchases with Chinese money. One vendor who couldn't give me change in that currency instead offered me two 2,000 won bills apologetically. You can be sure I kept those.
|The front and back of a 2,000 won bill / Korea Times photo by Jon Dunbar|
When I thought I'd seen everything, I discovered there was an entire other building with more shops. After I was done there, I wandered the grounds outside where many tents were set up offering food, mostly lamb skewers accompanied by good-quality Taedonggang Beer.
Out of the blue, I ran into Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours. He was happy to join me in one of the tents for a couple beers. They were small and superior to the typical beer down here, so we had a couple more. All the while, Koreans were all around us doing the same.
Simon has been with Koryo Tours since 2002, and claims to have visited the North over 175 times since then.
Now that the Royal Asiatic Society (RAS) Korea is holding lectures online, I've invited him to meet up virtually so he can discuss "Tourism and Engagement in North Korea: How It Works" for an audience in South Korea.
"When working in North Korea, an understanding that within the strict limits and rules there is space to make things happen is essential to having any success," he wrote in an online invitation. "How to make filming trips different, how to provide unique experiences to tourists, how to maximise the potential for interaction between North Koreans and foreign visitors, all while staying out of trouble and also making sure that different local partners with different motivations and mandates are both happy and safe, are all often overlooked while the focus on North Korea is too often placed on the thoughts and decisions of just one person."
He will be speaking from Beijing through Zoom on Sept. 22 starting at 7:30 p.m. Korean time. Joining is free and all are welcome. Visit raskb.com or fb.com/raskb for more information.