Editor's Picks Op/Ed

‘Automatons, Slaves or Members of the 1% in N. Korea’

Felix Abt
Written by Felix Abt


That’s the stereotypical portrayal of North Koreans by foreign media and authors of books on the country. My personal experience of the people of the DPRK was very different.

I recruited staff from universities, commercial enterprises and other organizations in North Korea and had a good mix of ages and backgrounds. Initially around half were women, but this was increased substantially over time as women were generally found to be more diligent and dedicated to tasks than their male counterparts. In my experience, this seems to be true throughout Asia. Just a small proportion belonged to the Korean Labor Party.

Most were slim when they started with us, but many added a little padding the longer they stayed. Older members of staff were usually married, younger staff often in love and some even showing symptoms of lovesickness. A few displayed signs of, or confided to, difficult relationships and a small number were divorced. There were rumors that some married staff members were not entirely faithful. Some colleagues liked one another better than others and sometimes there were misunderstandings and arguments. In other words, it was just like any of the companies I had worked in around the world.

All of my staff were hard workers, and if they weren’t they didn’t stay long. Exceptionally, the harder working staff asked for better training or the replacement of lazy or incompetent ones. Some always seemed to wear a serious face, others were often smiling. Some were introvert, others garrulous and fun-loving, telling jokes and enjoying a laugh. North Koreans love to joke and tell funny stories, as I experienced in numerous encounters with not only the employees, but also suppliers and customers. Some of the jokes would merit a xxx-rating in other countries!

Without exception the staff loved their children and were bursting with pride over their achievements. If a child successfully passed the entrance exam to a good school there was jubilation. Conversely, a child underperforming was the cause of huge anguish and could result in tearful scenes. I had great pleasure in meeting children of my staff on various occasions and found them just like kids anywhere else: some were shy and reticent, others were curious and bursting with questions for me. That the staff’s adult children married well was a very important topic, and so were grandchildren. There was none so proud among the staff as a contented grandparent.

Though media in the West claim most North Korean adults use meth and other drugs, I saw no signs of it among the workforce. I believe I am well aware of the signs and what to look for and knew that users of such drugs would typically display the symptoms after a while. On the other hand, most men were heavy smokers and loved to drink Soju and other hard alcoholic drinks. However, the latter was generally restricted to special occasions such as holidays or birthday parties.

As we jointly had to achieve some really tough objectives in a very demanding environment a close bond developed between my staff and me. They trusted me that I wouldn’t betray them and so I learned more about their families, friends, interests and hobbies than was usual for a westerner. We became even closer as we organized outings, sport days and Karaoke evenings and often played volleyball or table tennis together after work.

My video above shows one of my female staff members in the company canteen giving a short performance of ‘Tul’ (also teul or 틀 in Korean), which is as rigorous and precise as a Swiss clock, on the way to mastering North Korea’s favorite national sport Taekwondo, the equivalent to the ‘kata’ in karate.

This, then, is just one example of the individualistic nature of the North Korean staff I was honored to work with: people with distinct personalities, fears, foibles and idiosyncrasies; as individual as any other people in any other country. A far cry from the convenient, prejudiced stereotype the western media love to depict.

Q&As with Felix Abt, author of the book A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom. 

“North Korea Needs A Bold Vision”

Korea Observer: If you were asked to advise the North Korean government on how to create a brighter future for its citizens what would you tell them?

Felix Abt: I would recommend they strive to develop a long-term vision with an unequivocal strategy and clearly stated goals. They’d need to start implementing it without delay. The country could, and should, achieve an annual growth rate of 10 – 15 % over the next 10 to 20 years. To accomplish this the government would have to rethink previous approaches and look to widely liberalizing its economy. This is not without precedent and proven efficacy: China, starting from an economic base performing at a similarly low level to North Korea’s, introduced sweeping reforms and subsequently achieved consistent 2-digit growth rates over a period of many years; resulting in hundreds of millions of its citizens being lifted out of poverty.

Korea Observer: But that would mean the economy becomes free while there is no political freedom.

Felix Abt: Political liberalization is much more intractable as the North has a strong rival system in the South, not something China and Vietnam had to contend with when they opened up. The solution, I believe, is for the North’s vision to encompass a “Scandinavian” approach that includes a highly competitive element, evolving into a market economy while building up a strong social safety net for all those citizens who would otherwise struggle under such a system.

To realize a sustainable growth model, the country would, of course, also have to reform institutions, for example developing a law-based state and not incarcerating people for political reasons. Since the vast majority of North Korean refugees have left the country for economic reasons, implementing the outlined vision would become a strong disincentive to abscond, and would certainly be far more effective than a coercive approach.

The views expressed in the article are author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial policy of The Korea Observer.

About the author

Felix Abt

Felix Abt

Felix Abt is a Swiss entrepreneur and expert on doing business in North Korea. From 2002 to 2009, he worked as one of the few Western businessmen in North Korea. He was co-founder and first president of the European Business Association in Pyongyang, a de facto European Chamber of Commerce and the first foreign chamber of commerce. He also co-founded the Pyongyang Business School, imparting market skills in the next generation of leaders. He is also the author of the book A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom.

  • Mark Ryan Schulz

    One data point does not a reliable study make. I think many people would be happy in North Korea, too, if they had a job, food and were not languishing in death camps. No one in the west, nor the multitude of defectors is seriously suggesting that everyone loves the leader and will gladly die for him (The Interview and Margaret Cho are not to be taken as Gospel Truth). That’s the job of the North Korean regime’s mothpieces – the KCNA and that filthy rag the Rodong Shinmun.

    Of course some people are doing well, any system that has continued in isolation for so long must benefit the elite and a significant ‘middle class’ to stay afloat. On the whole, though, North Korea is a basket case with mass starvation, public executions and denial of human rights. I’m glad you had fun with your friends, it is a shame that many North Koreans are not as fortunate.

    • HaydukeLives

      Times have changed since the 90s.

      • Mark Ryan Schulz

        It may have improved, but that is in spite of the Kim regime and not because of it. Many of the problems such as death camps, executions (Jong-un killed his own uncle!) and chronic malnutrition, if not starvation, still exist. Furthermore, I still don’t see any democracy in that land. By ‘democracy’ I don’t mean a US-imposed husk. I mean a real, legal rival to the Korean Workers’ Party with open and free elections. People are still fleeing North Korea if given the opportunity, and their lives and movement are still tightly controlled by what is, in effect a minority government of the 10% deemed to be ‘ideologically pure’.

        • Z Kim

          Oh for fuck’s sake another brainwashed westerner (American?) spouting the same old bullshit nonsense about North Korea.

          Take one good hard look at the USA, like REALLY look. Invasions, wars, destruction, theft, genocide, supporting of dictators, supplying arms to terrorists and DOMESTICALLY killing unarmed citizens, torturing citizens including mentally ill, institutionalized racism, FOR PROFIT labor camps where prisoners work for pennies for FOR PROFIT corporations, essentially modern day slavery. The elite government officials earn 6 figures, have expense accounts, paid staff, mistresses, etc. while people in poor communities like Baltimore and Detroit are having their water shut off.

          I could go on and on and on, but you repeat a lot of bullshit nonsense about DPRK without actually understanding the DPRK. You want to take this further try joining DPRK Study Group on FB and get schooled and realize how much you’ve been deceived.

          • Mark Ryan Schulz

            Not American. Not western. Try again.

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