(Bloomberg) -- North Korea may seem like barren ground for entrepreneurs. But hearty founders have defied a lack of technology and support to start their own ventures, even before this week’s historic summit in Singapore raised the prospect of more economic opportunity.
There’s an e-commerce site called Manmulsang -- which means the everything store, in a nod to Amazon.com Inc. -- and Okryu, a mobile-shopping service. There’s also a navigation app, Gildongmu 1.0, which means road friend. Founders need to overcome some unusual obstacles. The only way for customers to get new smartphone apps, for example, is to go to a brick-and-mortar store and download them. It’s the App Store for autocrats.
Still, North Korea has allowed thousands of citizens to study entrepreneurship, despite any apparent conflict with socialist practices. Choson Exchange, a nonprofit group, has trained more than 2,000 North Koreans in their own country and Singapore in the past decade. Long before Kim Jong Un admired Singapore’s skyline from the Marina Bay Sands building ahead of his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, many compatriots sipped beer on the same spot while visiting for classes on entrepreneurship and venture capital.
Ian Collins, an Australian instructor at Choson Exchange, ran a four-day workshop for 80 people north of Pyongyang, in November. His students learned how to develop business models and deliver three-minute elevator pitches on their business ideas -- though it was unclear whether they would ever be in an elevator with a venture capitalist. The lack of resources sparks ingenuity. Several students came up with mobility products that rely on solar energy. Another group proposed taekwondo boards that can be broken and reassembled more than 100 times.
“They were probably the most eager, hungriest people I’ve ever spoken to,” Collins said.
Top students go to the country’s premier universities such as Kim Il Sung University and the Kim Chaek University of Technology, where they learn the basics of computer science even though internet access is limited. They regularly win prizes in international coding competitions and their talents have helped North Korea emerge as a global cybersecurity threat.
Jim Rogers, the veteran investor and chairman of Rogers Holdings Inc., was stunned to see the changes taking place in the tightly controlled regime. His biggest surprise was during a visit to a buzzing market in the North Korean city of Rason a few years ago, where hundreds of stalls were selling products from all over the world.
“North Korea today is where China was in the early 1980s,” he said. “It’s got all the signs -- a black market that was developing and new things were happening. All of these things usually lead to a very exciting future.”
After years of banning mobile phones or limiting them to few elites, North Korea began allowing their broad use in recent years. There were about 4 million mobile phone and smartphone users in the country in 2017, or roughly about one in six people, according to the Seoul-based Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.
North Koreans are just as eager to get ahead as their counterparts in the South, said a North Korean who worked for years in the country’s technology sector before defecting recently. “Expect to see all kinds of geeks trying to make money if their country opens up,” said the defector who asked to be identified by his alias, Lee Kang-soo, for fear of safety for his family in North Korea.
The biggest obstacle is restrictions on global internet access, which could cause an influx of information that can threaten the regime, Lee said. “Summit or not, the fact that North Koreans enjoy little freedom isn’t going to change easily,” he said.
Under Kim Jong Un’s administration, a new class of merchants has emerged, according to Kim Young-hui, another North Korean defector who is studying at South Korea’s Korea Development Bank. Known as “donju,” or people who hold money, they invest in factories producing everything from food to ammunition and the combination of capital and know-how has been helping North Korea’s economic growth to accelerate. John Kim, a venture capitalist who has taught North Koreans, says students are eager to learn about the economic model in Singapore, where he works.
Rogers, the American investor, said Kim Jong Un’s push to end his country’s isolation is unstoppable, and he’s looking for any opportunity to invest in North Korea.
“The kid was educated in Switzerland,” he said. “He doesn’t want to live in a place like North Korea.”
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