Some North Koreans Get Business Internships in Singapore

While world leaders bluster, young professionals in Southeast Asia build bridges with their peers from Pyongyang.
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Singapore's central business district from the Skybridge of The Pinnacles at Duxton public housing estate on April 25, 2013. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

The nuclear threats, rocket launches, and violent rhetoric out of North Korean over the past few months have been countered by the international community with everything from diplomatic condemnations, economic sanctions, and displays of military hardware, all with the elusive goal of reducing tensions with the world's last Stalinist state.

So far, to no avail. "The United States will not stand by while North Korea seeks to develop a nuclear-armed missile that can target the United States," a frustrated U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel complained from the sidelines last weekend at an Asian-Pacific defense summit in Singapore. "No country should conduct 'business as usual' with a North Korea that threatens its neighbors."

Then there is Dennis Rodman-style basketball diplomacy, inspired by the sensationalist American media company VICE. There were some fine photo ops with flamboyant basketball star sharing a courtside table with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and a bump in HBO ratings, but again, no real breakthroughs yet.

Far away from the spotlight, however, a group founded by Singaporean young professionals is taking a much different approach: they are quietly making inroads and building bridges with their peers in North Korea.

The Choson Exchange, a Singapore-registered non-profit, for the past three years has regularly sent volunteers to Pyongyang and Rason, and more recently brought North Koreans to Singapore, seeking to connect young people and institutions in North Korea with workshops in economic policy and international business.

The two-way exchange (Choson is the Korean name for the Korean peninsula) has been cited in the Economist magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere in the international media for its work sponsoring internships, educational programs, workshops, and other programs, all in an effort to promote dialogue and mutual understanding.

"Building trust is key," said one volunteer, Desmond Lim, 27, of the group's low-key and gradual approach to creating openings with people in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Lim, a graduate of Singapore Management University who serves as head of Singapore Operations for the group when he isn't working as a global bank analyst, said North Koreans are trusting of Singaporeans and curious to learn about Singapore and how it charted its fantastic growth.

"As Singaporeans, we play a role of middle man," Lim said. "They trust us, and they are keen to know how we grew so fast over the past 30 years, what did the Singapore government do right."

The group was founded by Geoffrey See, a Singaporean who was studying business at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in the summer of 2007 when he went to North Korea as a tourist. Knowing the country's reputation as a communist country that strongly opposes private enterprise, See was surprised when he met people his own age who were keenly interested in the world of business and economics.

The North Koreans lacked access to modern business knowledge and have historically relied on financial textbooks from the 1970s published in the Soviet Union. They also felt conscious about being shut off from the rest of the world, according to See, now 27 and the group's managing director. He has since opened a full-time Choson Exchange office in Beijing and is building a staff along with the group's executive director, Andray Abrahamian, a 34-year-old from the U.K. (Of the group's executive team, See and Abrahamian recently became paid staff, while Lim remains an unpaid volunteer.)

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Tom Benner is a freelance writer based in Singapore. He blogs at thomasbenner.com

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