North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sitting center, is surrounded by senior military officials holding “Paektusan” commemorative pistols they received from him during a ceremony in Pyongyang, July 26, 2020.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sitting center, is surrounded by senior military officials holding “Paektusan” commemorative pistols they received from him during a ceremony in Pyongyang, July 26, 2020. (Photo released by the North Korean Government)

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - A new book offers an on-the-ground account of the rewards and roadblocks faced by an American scholar as he engaged one of the world’s most closed-off states.  

In Being In North Korea, Andray Abrahamian reflects on the near decade he spent working for an international nonprofit organization that teaches business skills and market economic policy to aspiring entrepreneurs who have only ever lived under Pyongyang’s tightly controlled system.  

“The idea of using markets and individuals making market choices and participating in ways that benefit them, that idea has powerfully taken hold in North Korea,” Abrahamian, the former executive director of Choson Exchange, told VOA in an interview.  

But, even though many of his North Korean colleagues hoped for an economic transformation in their country, he had to steer clear of using the word “reform” during his seminars or discussions with officials, Abrahamian said.   

“The word reform implies there’s a problem that needs to be fixed,” he said.  “It echoes what China did and [North Korea] wants to make it clear that they are not copying the Chinese.” 

Selecting noncontroversial vocabulary was just one of the many challenges he encountered.

Abrahamian was among a relatively small number of foreign experts working for non-governmental organizations that have built trust with the North Korean government. These international organizations have been largely responsible for providing the North with humanitarian relief and in some cases guiding Pyongyang as it has taken steps to gradually liberalize its economy. 

According to Abrahamian, North Korea attracts particular types of interlopers; there are adventure-seekers, aid workers and Christian missionaries that feel “called” to save souls.    

“There’s a lot of people who are genuinely driven by compassion and the desire to help a population that generally has a difficult life,” he said. “I think that is a motivating factor for me also.” 

Few of these individuals and entities openly discuss or write books about their endeavors, and those that speak with media are often careful to not stray far from the party line and risk losing their access.   

Abrahamian left the NGO world in 2018 and is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum and was a Koret Fellow at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center while writing his manuscript. He had previously earned a PhD from a university in South Korea, where he also studied the Korean language.  

In his book, Abrahamian attempts to provide a more nuanced perspective of the North Korea while not holding back criticism of the regime and its policies that he says “isolate its people from the rest of the world.

He says through his former role, he wanted to help reshape international perceptions of North Korea that mainly focused on the country’s famine of the 1990s, weapons programs and sensational stories such as an alleged requirement that all men receive a haircut like Kim Jong Un.  

FILE - This picture taken on May 1, 2020 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on May 2, 2020 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting the completed Suchon fertilizer factory.

Abrahamian says he tells people that when it comes to the daily lives of ordinary North Korean people, the country is not so different and many of their concerns would seem familiar to Americans or anyone else around the world. 

Like parents anywhere, he says, “mothers fret about their children’s’ grades and dads drink too much after work because their jobs are stressful” and young men and women worry about finding the right partner to marry. 

But Abrahamian doesn’t deny that political life in North Korea is “just so alien.”  Workers attend routine self-criticism sessions and families must hang portraits of the country’s rulers in their homes -- some of the examples he describes in the book. 

It’s “80% normal, 20% profoundly weird,” he writes.

Abrahamian recalls there had been cautious optimism that North Korea would begin to open when Kim assumed power after the December 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong Il. In subsequent years, he oversaw numerous educational initiatives, including holding business and trade workshops that focused on female entrepreneurship and in another, a presenter introduced participants to the Big Mac Index, which measures the purchasing power of world currencies.

Abrahamian says because of the state's restrictions on political, social and economic activities, there are many limitations on how entrepreneurial any North Korean can be. But through his programs and role-playing exercises, he and his students found hypothetical ways to “circumvent the rules.”  

“The times you feel closest with North Koreans is when you are mutually trying to solve problems that the system has put up,” he said.  

He also took groups of North Koreans on trips to China, Vietnam and Singapore, where in addition to learning about those countries’ market reforms, some participants indulged in downing liters of Coca-Cola and consuming pints of ice cream -- rarities back home.  

Despite developing these professional and sometimes personal relationships, Abrahamian was acutely aware that these same people could report him to the authorities for saying anything that seemed too critical of the government and its policies.   

“I really learned how difficult it can be to live in a system where you have to regulate your thoughts very carefully, because thoughts can be dangerous,” he said, adding that this made working in North Korea “mentally exhausting.” 

External factors also frustrated his work.  

International sanctions and U.S.-imposed financial restrictions on North Korea increasingly complicated efforts to entice foreign partners to collaborate on projects.  

After the breakdown of the February 2019 Hanoi summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, Abrahamian says conservatives in Pyongyang’s leadership who favor stronger restrictions over economic activity became more powerful.  

These setbacks have made Abrahamian more cynical about the effectiveness of gently guiding North Korea to reform to widely benefit its people. But he asserts that attempts by foreign powers to force change through economic or military pressure will also fail.   

“They have the tools to keep running their country like this for a long time,” he said. 

And that, Abrahamian argues, is why efforts to engage North Korea are still needed.   

“Engagement doesn’t solve all the problems,” he said, but when considering failed efforts to force the regime to reform “engagement provides more opportunities for individuals to take control over some aspects of their lives.”