My CSR training in North Korea- Experiences of teaching in Asia as Westerner

Last week I was in Pyongyang, North Korea (or DPRK as connoisseurs would say), for a business training week for local entrepreneurs. It was a mixed joy to be there, challenging for the mind and heart, a feast for the eyes as we rode down the streets of Pyongyang and looked around at everything that was different, so very different from any country I have ever been in.Image

Through Choson Exchange, an established Singaporean Institute that organizes these business training exchange events, I was invited to come aboard on their training in May earlier, but that trip was cancelled earlier due to the fact our participants had to go rice planting that week.  But last week, the game was on, and we flew comfortably with North Korean Airlines Air Koryo to Pyongyang from Beijing.

At the arrival hall (conveniently doubling as departure hall, the new airport was still under construction,) we waited for our guides who would be our buddies and translators that week, who arrived shortly afterwards and greeted us kindly. No sightseeing yet for me, as soon as we stepped into the bus my translator was talking about the power point slides of my presentation, which she had received in advance, to check them out in multiple ways.

The next morning, Tuesday, we first went and visited the Leaders Memorial (Gigantic), and saw the National Assembly Hall (Enormous), and we then when to the National Library of North Korea (Epic in Size). The first thing I told my 46 students of that week was that , although I had been teaching in many different countries, I had never taught in such a beautiful and grand building in my life, and that pleased them.

The introduction to CSR and the Western perception of CSR was interesting for them, but as this was my first time teaching in North Korea I had only some ideas of what would be relevant for them to hear, and what to talk about, and based on their reactions I could divert from my topic if necessary. This was much to the frustration of my translator who had to improvise, sometimes would summarize or simply add material if I didn’t explain it well enough, and started asking me questions as well.  Topics we all could relate to were; responsibility of the Manager for his/ her employees, a Caring attitude, a safe workplace, etc. . State Owned Enterprises in North Korea have quite good labor laws, their maternity law was better than that of the United States we all agreed. And that was interesting for them; I was a Westerner, teaching them Corporate Social Responsibility, but I would easily take a negative example from the West and tell them what I would think of it; I showed self-criticism and how this works in a training environment. I told them this was a conscious strategy: I wanted them to learn from this self-critical Teaching style, and apply this self-criticism to their own way of thinking and decision making.

Wednesday morning 7.00 we started as business trainers in our Hotel with something that must seem somewhat peculiar for North Koreans; as there was no gym in the hotel, but we opened up a video on the laptop we had with us and followed the insanity fitness program in the hallway of our floor.  A lot of planking and push-ups were involved, and I ended up with scratched arms. (And I promised my mum that ‘not a scratch’ would happen to me in Pyongyang…)

The rest of the day I gave them three different Case studies with role plays to work on, it took some time to understand them, but then they greatly enjoyed the material. There was a lot of laughter and giggling going on, because the situations (which I had taken from real life situations from companies I talked to) were unusual to them; they had the opportunity to talk back to a superior, which was a very new situation, and it was a good session.

We kept circling around the Western perception and North Korea’s situation, till someone in the group said “What is the West complaining about us? We have a good life! We are Happy!” In the coffee break we could talk about this a little more out of the group situation, but it makes you think, what would you say about your society or your company? Are you living in Utopia already, and proclaiming so, or are there areas you need to improve? In the final reflection of the training I could address this issue as well. After the department Party Leader had given a speech on how glorious it all was in his Country.

Thursday was a day for me to talk a little longer to some participants, and look around in Pyongyang. As I am Dutch to the bone I was intrigued by the lack of people biking around in Pyongyang; it is a very flat Capital (Pyongyang means flat land in Chinese), no wind, lovely boulevards, a simple bike would cost 80 RMB (ten euro), any family could scrap the money together- but where are the bikes? Where are the bikes? Everybody is walking, and there are hardly any cars or buses to be seen (North Korea and Climate Change- not really a pressing issue at the moment for them).

Talking all day to our translator buddies, who accompanied us to all tourist attractions, took a toll on my mental health in some ways, and as I arrived in the building where the last training sessions were held, I was fed up with the buddy guiding, found an empty music room and played Land of Hope and Glory on the piano. But I realized there that my irritation and the showing of it wouldn’t help anyone in that Country anyhow, and the best thing to do was to accept it for the time being, to give the best training possible and be friendly to all. I would love to come back anyway, so better get used to it.

Friday was my last day, our three guides brought me to the Airport, I had a little gift for the three of them and our driver, but my translator was distressed that she didn’t have anything for me, and bought me some souvenirs at the Airport: Chinese and German imported snacks and two Dutch Heineken beers. After the Security check I waited at the one and only Gate, surrounded by North Korean Nationalistic Songs and Video, and I closed my eyes, put U2 on on my smartphone and sank back, thinking that living in Beijing wasn’t as  bad as I thought it was…


August 2013