This year there were people from six continents and more than 100 countries at the St. Gallen Symposium. But one country stood out: The last time the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – better known as North Korea – sent representatives to a conference in Switzerland was the World Economic Forum in 1998.
The DPRK is a socialist, one-party state, largely cut off from the world. When it makes the news – which is fairly often – the coverage is usually negative, focusing on the country’s human rights violations or efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal.
All of which makes it even more surprising that two North Korean officials attended the 49th St. Gallen Symposium. Hwang Sung Chol, Secretary General of Cultural and Education Exchanges, and Jong Kwang Jin, Director of the Ministry of External Economic Relations, travelled to Switzerland to meet with Leaders of Tomorrow and, perhaps, start a cultural exchange programme.
Their journey began with an engaged St. Gallen alumnus, Singapore’s Geoffrey See. See has taught business and entrepreneurship classes in North Korea for ten years now. His interest in the country dates back to his first visit in 2007. “I went in with a lot of preconceptions about what the country was like,” he says, “but when I talked to younger Koreans in Pyongyang there was this very clear sign of their interest in entrepreneurship.”
After See founded his company, Choson Exchange, in 2007, it took two years before officials agreed to let him start his programme there. After meeting many North Koreans, he realised that they were hungry to understand the rest of the world. He started reaching out to DPRK officials, hoping to convince them to join the St. Gallen Symposium.
His perseverance paid off: Two young officials, Hwang Sung Chol and Jong Kwang Jin, were able to attend the symposium. (There were some bureaucratic hurdles – the pair had to travel to China to take biometric passport photos, and it wasn’t clear until the last minute that they’d be able to fly.)
At the symposium, the pair were open to answering questions about their homeland as part of an Insight Session. They fielded some critical queries about the political situation of the country. “For me personally the reactions were not surprising because a lot of people actually don't know much about DPRK,” Hwang Sung Chol says. “From my point of view, a lot of people actually are brainwashed by all this kind of mainstream mass media.”
For example, Chol says, the DPRK’s isolation is often seen as something it’s imposed on itself. Chol argues the reality is the opposite: “The seclusion is something which is forced by the rest of the world.” He says it’s not the DPRK’s fault that the country of 25 million has almost no relationships with other countries. As a reaction to human rights violations and unsanctioned nuclear weapon tests, the UN imposed sanctions. This hinders trade as well as travel for North Koreans. “We would like to have bigger interactions,” he says, but “our hands are tied.”
North Korea’s biggest trade partner is China. But trade with its neighbor fell by about 50% in 2018. The country is responding by developing its heavy industry sector, as well as the transformation of Samjiyon County from a mountain city to a tourism destination.
According to See, there is also a growing entrepreneurial spirit in North Korea. “Ten to fifteen years ago people were worrying that if they built a business, they would lose control over the company they founded,” See says. Nowadays there’s a growing awareness of things like property rights.
Ultimately, however, every company is state-owned. Hwang Sung Chol spins the setup as capital for purpose: “The final and ultimate task or goal is to contribute back to society,” he says. “It is just more society-oriented and a different kind of understanding.”
Might the visit to St. Gallen represent a larger change? After all, exchange with other countries, the young North Koreans say, benefits their country as well. For Chol, the opportunity to exchange ideas was the best part of the symposium. “It is not like I just want to learn and then become a capitalist,” he says. “For us, it is a very good opportunity to get to know the mindset that the people in the world outside have, and how their economy works.”
As the two men reflected on their experiences Friday afternoon, they said they are thinking about coming back – or, perhaps, sending other officials to the symposium
in years to come. They also harbour an ambitious dream. Maybe building up a long-term relationship between the DPRK and Switzerland won’t be necessary. “In ten or twenty years, North and South will be with reunified into one Korea,” Jong Kwang Jin says optimistically.
They are aware of the fact that after 70 years of separation reunification poses quite a challenge. “It is like building a confederacy of competitors, but we are still recognizing all those kinds of differences of the ideologies in each part,” Hwang Sung Chol says. The economic system alone – a planned economy on the one side and South Korea’s open market economy on the other hand – would be difficult to integrate.
How the DPRK might tackle this challenge remains unclear. But if the economic advantages both of North and South Korea could somehow be combined, “together we will be the most powerful economy in the world,” Jong Kwang Jin says.
For the first time in more than 20 years, two officials from North Korea participated in an international forum in Switzerland. They hope that in 10 to 20 years North and South Korea will be a unified economic powerhouse.