Linking Hermit Kingdom to the world

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 7, 2014

MR GEOFFREY See could not be more different from Dennis Rodman. The 28-year-old Singaporean is as buttoned-down and unflaggingly polite as Rodman, the retired American professional basketball player, is tattooed and brash. Yet both have been trying to engage North Korea, each in his own way.

While the headline-grabbing Rodman uses sports and entertainment, Mr See has been doing it quietly, through economics and business training. While Rodman consorts with Pyongyang's political elites and calls Mr Kim Jong Un a "lifelong friend", Mr See has never met the Supreme Leader and deals mainly with its grassroots.

Straight out of university, Mr See has made some 30 trips to North Korea over the past five years, taking 35 international experts to conduct business and legal training in Pyongyang and Wonsan to some 700 North Koreans. He has also brought over 40 high-potential North Korean managers, bureaucrats and entrepreneurs to Singapore for training.

He's done it mostly pro bono, sleeping on couches, eating cheap street food and going for months without salary. At the end of 2012, he even left a top-dollar consulting job with Bain & Company in Boston to do this full-time.

The founder of the Singapore-based non-profit Choson Exchangelives for his dream: to see North Korea eventually integrated into the international system, its economy prospering and its people enjoying a higher standard of living. But his means to that admittedly bold end are more practical than provocative. He seeks to provide North Koreans with the knowledge and tools to improve the Hermit Kingdom's economy and enable it to interact with the global capitalist system, should it, in time, decide to.

Doesn't he fear that knowledge cuts both ways and may be misused? It depends on the intention of its users, he acknowledges, but adds that the people selected for training are not from the ruling elite or military, but from the grassroots. What Choson Exchange does is solicit applications from the public, funnelled through North Korean universities such as the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. Then it carefully selects those best-positioned to help improve the situation on the ground through interviews, personal statements and letters of recommendation.

"At the grassroots levels, everyone just wants the situation to improve. They would like more access to international society and to see their country develop."

He's well aware his work draws fire from the pro-sanction lobby who feel North Korea should be prevented from trading and developing its economy, hopefully leading to a groundswell of public anger that overthrows its government. "At the same time, these people encourage information to flow into North Korea, such as radio broadcasts," he parries. "So the way I look at it is that we are trying to achieve the same objectives. We all want North Koreans to be informed consumers, to make their own choices."

Bridging divides

HE LETS you know upfront he's not from a rich family. Subtext: This is a cause that has cost him much. He is the third son of a drinks stall hawker and nursing administrator. He went to neighbourhood schools like Radin Mas Primary and Gan Eng Seng School, where he helped set up a debate team that went on to beat top schools. The David versus Goliath victories powered him on to qualify for Hwa Chong Institution, where he won an all-expenses paid, month-long exchange programme to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

During the exchange, he witnessed a funeral march for a nine-year-old African American girl shot dead in the crime-ridden streets of North Pennsylvania. The barbed-wire fences, chained flower pots and huge social divide haunted him. Upon his return, he studied nightly at Bukit Merah Library, flipping through news magazines. They became his window to the inequalities in the wider world.

By 17, he set up a now-defunct online magazine on social enterprise. After national service, he interned with economist Manu Bhaskaran at Centennial Asia Advisors, doing regional economic and political analysis for five months. Mr Bhaskaran, in his 50s, remembers: "He impressed me with his intelligence and out-of-the-box thinking... and the quality of his work."

Afterwards, Mr See, the only one among his siblings to make it to university, enrolled at Wharton on a partial scholarship, to read business and economics. His family chipped in with the rest of his fees and expenses, spurring him to graduate in just two years.

On the side, he tutored underprivileged kids and helped set up a preventive health-care project in West Philadelphia, which took up to 24 hours a week. In his second year, while doing research work in Beijing over the summer, he visited North Korea for the first time in 2007 on a tourist pass.

The visit debunked his preconceptions of the secretive country. "I went there thinking it's a socialist country, no one really cares about learning about business or economics because they don't see it as applicable within their system", and the usual "They're all brainwashed and will give me the party line", he recounts.

But he was taken aback by his tour guide, a North Korean female university student, who asked him to bring along an economics textbook the next time. "She had her own opinions about what she wanted to do with her life, how she wanted to go into business to show that females make good business leaders."

He realised no one was paying attention to what young North Koreans thought, wanted or aspired to. He went on to discover a clutch of aid disbursement groups operating in Pyongyang, mostly founded by Western government agencies and church groups. But none was doing what he felt was needful - a people-to-people exchange focused on imparting business knowledge.

He began plotting his return to North Korea. In 2009, he took up a Yale University master's scholarship to read East Asian Studies, followed by seven months of sponsored study of the Korean language in South Korea.

That year, in the aftermath of the disastrous 2009 currency revaluation, which wiped out the savings of many North Koreans, he led seven international finance experts to Pyongyang to talk to university dons, bankers and policymakers. After graduation, he based himself in China, shuttling between Beijing and Pyongyang. For over half a year, he couch-surfed with friends and stayed in hostels when he travelled. By the end of 2011, missing an income, he returned to the US to work for Bain in Boston. But he only lasted a year, fund-raising and running programmes in North Korea on weekends. By end 2012, he felt he was not "progressing except in net worth", and quit to devote himself to Choson Exchange, which he felt he "loved doing most".

Placating mum

TODAY, life remains a struggle. Every victory is hard won. Communications with North Korean counterparts remain fraught with challenges. "We don't hear from our partners for weeks at a time. Phone networks go through operators. There are a lot of restrictions on e-mail. Snail mail is unreliable," says Mr See, who now visits North Korea once a month.

The silences were especially unnerving last December, when the execution of Mr Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song Thaek and his associates led to worries of a hardline takeover. It was a nail-biting time of worry over the fate of his projects and partners. Thankfully, everything is now back to status quo, he says.

Then there are regional tensions, like in 2010 when a South Korean navy ship, ROKS Cheonan, was found to have been sunk by a North Korean torpedo. "Much as we like to disconnect our work with North Korean elite politics, people see it as correlated. When public opinion towards the North Korean leadership takes a dive, our programmes are put under more scrutiny and pressure from sponsors. People start thinking these people are not worth helping."

Already, on a good day, the North Korean issue gets the cold shoulder from most. It is deemed remote, sensitive, and "the domain of government or state- backed institutions", he laments.

But Mr See never gives up, says his long-time supporter, Korean-turned-Singaporean Rhee Nam Uh, 50, managing director at a global investment bank here.

"Despite being relatively young, Geoff has displayed amazing tenacity and maturity."

Fortunately, the cause has some traction with Singaporean intellectuals and Korean-Americans based here, as well as a Swiss development agency and the Lee Foundation. Choson Exchange now runs on about $500,000 a year. It gets over a third of its funding from private individuals and foundations based here.

Over a third of its volunteers are also Singapore-based businessmen, marketers and lawyers. These volunteers, some of whom work for investors interested in North Korea or are just curious, pay their own way to go to North Korea to share their expertise in training programmes.

Last year, Choson Exchange trained 267 North Koreans in Pyongyang and Wonsan. They also shortlisted 18 promising ones and hosted their visit to Singapore. The North Koreans foot only 5 per cent of the bill to come to Singapore, where they stay in hostels, take public transport, visit warehouses to learn about logistics, meet venture capitalists, stroll the Esplanade area and drink teh tarik - Mr See's favourite - in Arab Street.

More than half of those trained last year were women managers and entrepreneurs, as they traditionally have less opportunity to study business. Yet, Mr See notes that many North Korean SMEs - a growing and dynamic sector - are run by women.

This year, he plans to bring in 60 North Koreans and train a further 400 in their own country. He is also looking at how to further support the growth of North Korean entrepreneurs through venture capital. So far, what buoys him is seeing participants go on to set up successful ventures in consumer products, baking and cosmetics.

He now splits his time three ways, between Singapore, Beijing and Pyongyang. He has also roped in a British friend, Dr Andray Abrahamiam, who helps him run the show from Beijing full-time. They both draw a "small salary", that is "comparable to a new graduate here".

When in Singapore, the free-thinker lives in his parents' five-room flat in Telok Blangah. No time for girlfriends, says the single, who also holds a research fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sits on the board of a listed Mongolian oil recycling company.

His bugbear is that each time another macabre North Korean incident hits the news, his folks, who have grave doubts about what he's doing, worry anew.

To placate his mum, he brought home a group of 11 North Koreans recently. They sat down to a meal she cooked and complimented her curry chicken. "After having actually met North Koreans, she was like: 'Oh, they are just people.' Before that, it's just news articles. I think it reassured her a bit."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 7, 2014

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