The rising threat of war. An uncertain government. A challenging economic environment. People are used to that in the United States. Business people in North Korea also have all those challenges, and then some. But that doesn't seem to stop them from doing business.
Last year and according to South Korea's central bank, the North Korean economy grew almost 4 per cent, a number that politicians and economists in the United States can only dream about. Money is still flowing from China. There's a building boom in Pyongyang. And, as I previously wrote back in August, there is still a middle class that seem to have enough cash to afford solar panels to help light up their homes.
Yes, North Korea has its obvious problems - isolation from the world, a non-existent transportation network, rampant malnutrition, virtually no electricity in most parts of the country and of course that Rocket Man guy running things (sorry, Elton). But guess what? Entrepreneurism can thrive anywhere - even in a country where private enterprise is against the law.
North Korea has "some of the more capable entrepreneurs in the world" writes Justin Hastings in Foreign Policy. It's tough to argue. The country has countless small, private and unregistered businesses doing all sorts of things under the government's nose-and oftentimes with the government's complicit knowledge. They're selling products such as minerals, textiles, gold, medicines and seafood in clandestine marketplaces to willing buyers from China and South Korea. They participate in complex smuggling networks, where entrepreneurs who power boats, drive trucks, carry products or guard the borders all take a piece of the pie.
Sure, they frequently (and oftentimes purposely) get "caught" and pay a penalty . . . an exercise that both sides know is more for show than enforcement. But, as Hastings' reports, one trader estimates that 70 per cent of the trade through Dandong, the main Chinese city on the North Korean border, was smuggled. Of course, the recent war of words between North Korea and the United States has caused China to step up its clampdown on all the illegal activity that goes on across and into their borders. But most believe that's only temporary.
I once asked a very successful client of mine what would happen if his business fell onto hard times. "I would just buy stuff that one guy doesn't want, drive 50 miles, and then sell it to someone who does." There's always a supply and demand. Any good entrepreneur will tell you that, whether he's from America or North Korea.
Gene Marks owns the Marks Group, a consulting firm that helps clients with customer relationship management.