S’porean entrepreneur's 2 near-death experiences working in North Korea: 'It gave me a lot to think about'

Geoffrey See founded Choson Exchange, a non-profit organisation supporting entrepreneurs in North Korea.

Mothership | November 08, 2020, 01:18 PM

Geoffrey See founded Choson Exchange in 2007, a non-profit organisation that supports change in North Korea through exposure to knowledge and information in business, entrepreneurship and law.

As of 2018, Choson Exchange has trained about 2,000 North Koreans, brought over 100 volunteers to North Korea and over 100 Koreans to Singapore.

In a 2020 interview, See spoke about how he got started with Choson Exchange and the difficulties and risks he encountered, including a close call involving North Korean authorities.

We have reproduced portions of the interview, which was first uploaded as a podcast on Jeremy Au's site. Listen to the full podcast here

Tell us about your leadership journey.

When I think of leadership, it's tied very much to the work I did setting up Choson Exchange, a grassroots-led organization where we bring people from all around the world to North Korea to run training programs on economic policy, entrepreneurship and the rule of law.

On top of that, we also play a role advising the other capitals, that are very much involved in this issue, on engagement with this country and its people.

How did you get started?

My first exposure to the Korean issue came in 2005. I went to South Korea for an APEC conference.

While I was there, I met people from divided families. South Koreans who had family in the North and I also met North Koreans who had fled the North and are now living in the South.

I got very interested in it, read up everything I could about the topic. It's hard to believe it now.

At that time, it was just really five books that you could read, and you would say, I've read everything there was to be read about North Korea. That was my initial exposure.

In 2007, I was interning in Beijing and I had some time on my hands. I decided that having done all the research, having interacted with the issue, I wanted to see what North Korea is like. That was how I ended up visiting Pyongyang as a tourist.

I spent two years trying to just find a way to get back into the country. I searched every news source, contacted any foreigner I know who's living in North Korea. I didn't make a lot of headway.

The success came when they did foreign exchange reform in 2009. It didn't go very well for them. It was not a success at all. They started realizing that they needed to learn from the rest of the world. So that was how we first got ourselves started in there.

I didn't at that time have a blueprint for Choson Exchange. But in that process of exploration, I was able to build a small initiative.

I had an offer from Bain & Co. to go back to consulting. I delayed it for two and a half years to work on Choson Exchange and I went back to Bain and started my life as a consultant.

In late 2012, I decided I would go back to visit North Korea, check in on our partners, see some of our programs and how it was doing.

But when I was leaving, I was at the airport and I was just reflecting back on that very emotional week. I just realized what was happening there with these people was a lot more real to me than what was happening as a consultant working in Boston into the late night.

What hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?

In the last 10 years I was working on this issue, I almost died twice.

The first time, I was on a flight out from North Korea on a North Korean airline. I was sleeping on the flight and halfway through the flight, I just woke up and the entire flight was filled with smoke.

It was a very bizarre experience because the North Koreans being North Koreans, everyone was just not telling us what was happening. And when we asked them, they respond, "Oh, no problem, no problem."

You're looking around, you're seeing smoke, filling up the plane, coming from the vents, and you're thinking to yourself, you know, there is a problem here. The oxygen mask dropped; the plane started dropping. You could feel the pressure building in the ears, and I just thought I was going to die on this flight.

I'm going to crash in North Korea, and this would be the end of Geoffrey See. That didn't happen thankfully, but it was one experience where it gave me a lot to think about.

The other time was in 2014. Kim Jong Un had this very powerful uncle called Jang Song-thaek. He was executed by the North Koreans.

Three weeks before the uncle's execution, our partner that we worked with in North Korea disappeared. Initially, we thought nothing had happened. We didn't hear from him. We're supposed to have a program, but it was canceled.

Then the execution news came out. I started to wonder if these two issues were connected. I flew into North Korea about four weeks after the execution over Christmas and met with some of our other partners in the country and we asked them what happened to the guy we were working with.

Everyone's very tight lipped. They didn't want to share a lot, but I walked away very much with the impression that there was some connection between this issue. Over the next one year, I kept asking our partners, "Where is the person who worked with? Is he safe? How's he doing?"

We eventually did meet him again. He told us that there was an investigation because in one of our programs, we had trained people linked to some of the factions that were close to the uncle.

They were basically interrogating our partner as to whether he had a link to the recently deceased uncle, and by extension whether Choson Exchange had a link to the uncle, which we didn't have. Eventually, he said "No, there wasn't any link" and they seemed satisfied with the answer.

We didn't get into any trouble, but I could just imagine a scenario where if he had said yes, I might be detained for quite a number of years now, which did happen to some other non-profits or church groups that were working in the country and supposedly had very close ties to the uncle.

There was a missionary who worked in one of these economic zones in the north-eastern part of the country. He represents fairly large church groups. We were told that he was very close to the uncle. He had very close political relationships there. He was a Canadian citizen.

About six months after the execution happened, he had gone back into the country and he ended up being detained there for three years before the Prime Minister of Canada managed to get him out of the country.

Wow. You had some risk flying into the country, and you were totally unaware.

The known unknowns, where you always know there is a risk of domestic politics, but you don't know exactly in what form it takes and how you're exposed to it.

That's one thing we face daily when we work on North Korea, we always have to make judgment calls on the risk level, whether it's from internal parties in North Korea, or external parties elsewhere.

There's no hard and fast rules, right? You cannot measure that risk. And so, you always have to do it on a gut instinct. How far do you want to push something or to what extent you are willing to absorb that risk? This is a very dynamic situation.

If you could go back 10 years in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

Wow. That's a challenging one, right? There is this external story where we tell, and it looks like success. People believe that what you've done is great. But I think there's always a lot of self-doubt in that journey.

For me, I can't say that there was any particular year that went so smoothly, and I said, "Wow, this is such a great year. I've never doubted why I was on this path working on this issue." Every year, there's always a problem, right? Nuke tests, sanctions, North Koreans being difficult.

The biggest hurdle I face is this question of keeping faith in the work that I'm doing. Every year, I've always asked myself like, "Is it worth doing it? Could I be on a more comfortable path doing Bain, doing whatever comes after management consulting that most of my peers go to."

I wish I'd made decisions to diversify some of my risks more. It's a marathon. The issue has not been solved. We have not reached a resolution. It could be 20 more years before we see a breakthrough in U.S-North Korea relations.

Just because you have made a decision once doesn't mean that it's a decision that stays with you your whole life. Even though I'm so much defined by the issue and I'm so associated with it, it is important that I am able to stay in the game and keep myself sane, be well-fed and still live a fairly comfortable life.

I would say in hindsight, I don't regret it. I also have to believe that it's worth trying and keeping at it. The idea that there is a long-term mission, change will happen someday and that I need to keep believing in that.

We've not seen that real resolution yet, but it's the realization that this is a long journey. I've moved away from the issue and at various times I've moved back into the issue.

It ramps up at some times and ramps down at other times. But I always try to keep some stake in the issue, and some level of involvement in it.

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