Spending January 26th at the Tent Embassy in Canberra.
Spending January 26th at the Tent Embassy in Canberra.
On the Road with Dennis McNally
Dennis lived the dream and spent a good portion of his life serving as the publicist for the Grateful Dead and served as their official biographer.
We talk about why the Dead never came to Australia, the charisma of Jerry Garcia, Brent, and why the Dead’s music is still so important.
North Korea normally doesn’t jump out on the top of anyone’s list when envisioning living overseas, that mystery held a certain attraction to Swiss National Felix Abt.
The self-described serial entrepreneur has spent his professional career working for multinational companies around Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but nothing prepared him for the seven years he spent North Korea. His experiences are captured in his book A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom.
2002-2009 was a time for mixed economic liberalism and this allowed for the creation of several international joint venture companies. Mr Abt was put in charge of a aspirin factory and later started a business school and a chamber of commerce.
Far from being cult worshiping brainwashed slaves. North Koreans, in Mr Abt’s view, are funny engaging, proud and suffer from the foibles that infect all mankind. In short, their human.
Over the course of his seven years living and working among North Koreans, Mr. Abt’s book offers an unparalleled and often challenging role of how we perceive North Korea. It is also an essential primer for those interested in the day to day milieu of life in North Korea.
I recently reached out to Mr. Abt and spoke with him via e-mail about his time in North Korea. Below is a transcript of our interview.
Could you introduce yourself. What your job is, maybe some of your past work experience and answer how you ended up in North Korea?
I’m a serial entrepreneur. In the past I was a senior executive at multinational corporations such as the ABB Group, a global leader in automation and power technologies, the F. Hoffmann-La Roche Group, a global leader in healthcare, and the Zuellig Group Inc., a leading Asian distribution and trading group.
I also worked with smaller and medium-sized enterprises, in both mature and new markets, including Vietnam and North Korea. Business trips took me to countless countries around the globe and I have lived and worked in nine countries on three continents. I went abroad to learn and observe, not to pass judgment and not to propagate my personal views nor to lecture – nor to “liberate” – other people.
Rumors in early 2002 of upcoming market reforms encouraged me to accept a job offer as the North Korea country director by the global ABB Group.
What were your thoughts when you first got accepted/sent to the DPRK? Excitement, nervous, scared? How did your family feel?
I was curious and excited and expected it to become the biggest challenge of my entire professional career. I also felt it could be highly rewarding, not in a financial but in a moral sense, to help change things for the better in this hitherto highly isolated country. My Hanoi-born wife was supportive and she quickly got familiar with the many North Korean similarities to her own country’s past.
This is a big question, but perhaps you could describe how the media incorrectly paints the issue in North Korea. For example people in the West assume North Koreans are brainwashed by all the political posters on the streets, but don't see themselves as brainwashed with all the McDonald's and Nike advertisements around. How does the media perpetuate this?
Westerners, brainwashed by mainstream media, believe that the North Koreans are either automatons, slaves, worshipers of their leaders or starving to death or vegetating in a Gulag. Western propaganda has spread appalling stereotypes over many decades dehumanizing the North Koreans. I wrote my book A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in North Korea not to make money but to tell those interested in a more objective and non-partisan narrative that my employees, suppliers and customers in North Korea were not slaves and automatons and did not believe all the propaganda, even though they didn’t and couldn’t publicly challenge it. And some of them saw foreign movies, read foreign books even though they were banned in the country. What stroke me most is that North Koreans knew more about the outside world than Westerners knew about North Korea. I dealt with so many people across the country, largely non-elite citizens, from farmers to miners to engineers to teachers and doctors. It would have been too difficult to choreograph their interactions with me by the government, so I saw them mostly like they really were including crying mothers, drunk men, people getting into fist fights, patients in ice cold hospital bedrooms in winter time etc.
It would not be uncommon to see a headline that read something like "On the dangerous streets of Baghdad, Kabul, and Pyongyang." Can you explain why that statement is ridiculous for those that have spent time in North Korea.
I only felt the streets of Pyongyang were dangerous when I was driving my car on snow and ice-covered streets during harsh winters. It’s unfair when media put safe and clean Pyongyang on par with Baghdad, Kabul and other cities where you don’t know if the next bomb is going to blow you away nor if you are going to die by a gun shot.
What thoughts do you have on North Korean people. After I came back from my tour, I got asked "Are they robots... Do they know the outside world.... .what do they think?" You are in a much better position to answer those questions than me......
Let me talk about the North Koreans I knew best: my employees. 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. Just a small proportion belonged to the ruling 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. Usually 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 introverted, 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 under-performing 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.
Recently the US president has met with Kim Jong UN twice. Personally I think everyone should meet regardless, but why is Trump the President to break through and what has America got right in its negotiations (if anything) and what has it gotten wrong? Is there a hope for peace going forward?
Vietnam was an excellent venue choice for the second summit. And it was a very important symbol: The North Koreans wanted to show that America and Vietnam, once bitter enemies, were able to overcome their hostilities and to become more friendly and that they would welcome the same for their relationship with the U.S. Also, Vietnam was very poor until the eighties and lived on imported food aid. Reforms helped Vietnam change dramatically and to become even a ‘’food superpower’’: It is now a leading producer and exporter of rice, coffee, spices etc. Unlike Vietnam North Korea has very little arable land but it has huge deposits of metals and minerals. Exploiting them could turn North Korea into a flourishing country as well.
The North Koreans wanted to make a deal in Hanoi but all they got was a paper from Trump demanding the handover of their nukes, corresponding to a de-facto unilateral disarmament and surrender, which is, of course, a non-starter. Sadly, we are back to square one and the end of the now 67-year-old Korean war is still not in sight.
Any interesting memories from North Korea, things that we don't see in the West? What were some of the challenges in setting up a business in such a controlled state?
I had a lot of interesting and funny encounters, but as I respect the privacy of those who were present I will not go public with it.
And again, setting up multiple businesses, North Korea’s first business school and the first foreign chamber of commerce is not your typical Sunday stroll. It involves a lot of conviction work, but also frustrations, disagreements (on both sides) and quarreling, for which I was neither sent to a labor camp nor expelled from the country, as Western media consumers are inclined to believe. Yet, with mutual respect, patience, empathy and perseverance foreign business people stood a fair chance of setting up a profitable business as I did (before ever harsher ‘’sanctions’’ were imposed from the mid-2000s).
How was your book received? You pull no punches in parts attacking some of the more hyperbolic descriptions of the country....how have other journalists and 'experts' received your work. I rarely see it on lists of must read North Korea material, but actually your book offers the most realistic assessment of the country.
Conditioned readers and partisan editors were disappointed by my book. They expected me to write another brutal horror story of suppression and death, whether true or invented, which gets pages of media attention and praise.
An honest account of seven years living there, and working and interacting with North Korean workers, miners, engineers, farmers, doctors and scientists, however, is too foreign to perceived wisdom to receive recognition from the blinkered Western media. So they largely ignored, or more precisely, censored it.
To bypass this sort of censorship I published an additional free e-book entitled ‘’North Korea behind the veil. Short stories and photo collection’’ which can be downloaded here.
A more enlightened expert from an American think tank feared I was suffering from the "Pyongyang illusion” meaning that my judgement was clouded by the capital’s signs of affluence, the availability of food in the markets, cell phones, and stylishly-dressed women. I answered that I also traveled to and worked in places far from the privileged capital where I spent my nights during cold winters in guesthouses without power but with candlelight – how romantic! – and without running water but with buckets of ice-cold water for my showers – how refreshing! I asked him to call me a victim of the “countryside illusion” instead.
What would you advise to anyone thinking of going to North Korea on an organised tour? Is it worth it to have the guide/tourist relationship?
Generally, any interaction between Westerners and North Koreans is positive, no matter how much it is ‘’managed’’ by Pyongyang. An outdoor picnic or playing badminton together, as some tourists have done, is beneficial for challenging silly stereotypes (on both sides) and for nurturing openness and changed attitudes.
What are you working on at the moment...any more books? I am happy to plug anything you might be working on..including a website, blog, another book, etc.
I was an investor of legitimate North Korean joint venture companies (all in consumer goods and IT) which have been driven into bankruptcy by UN ‘’sanctions.’’ Currently, I have no book projects.
Any final thoughts you think people should know about North Korea?
Richard Nixon, a conservative U.S. president, stretched out his hand to Mao Zedong’s Red China, a gesture that helped to lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. I was in Vietnam when U.S. President Bill Clinton normalized relations by opening the U.S. embassy in Hanoi and could observe Vietnam’s breathtaking development since then. It saddens me that North Korea, ready to follow the Chinese and Vietnamese examples, has still not been given a chance by Washington to come in from the cold and join the world community of nations. I’m not very optimistic that the conflict between the United States and North Korea will be resolved in a peaceful manner, since this is not in the interest of the military-media-industrial complex. Remember, the Korean War is what inaugurated the now incredibly powerful military-industrial complex and its numerous wars around the globe have benefited the embedded mainstream media. The Korean War is what quadrupled America’s defense budget. It also shaped a completely new American foreign policy which made the U.S. the world’s self-appointed sheriff.