Meet the young Singaporeans building bridges with North Koreans

A Singaporean non-profit wants to foster closer ties between North Koreans and the outside world.

Singapore North Korea youth meeting
Choson is an ancient name for the Korean Peninsula [Tom Benner/Al Jazeera]

Far removed from the tough talk and deep mistrust that has characterised international relations with Pyongyang, a group of young Singaporean professionals are quietly making personal connections and building bridges with their peers in North Korea.

The Choson Exchange, a Singapore-registered non-profit, has sent volunteers to North Korea for the past several years and brought North Koreans to Singapore, developing improbable networks by organising workshops on business basics and entrepreneurship, as well as internships and mentorship programmes.

The two-way exchange promotes dialogue and mutual understanding with an emerging generation of leaders in the countries. 

“One needs to take a position on North Korea, do you isolate it, or do you believe in engagement?” Calvin Chua, a 33-year-old Singaporean, told Al Jazeera.

“Personally, I believe in engagement. Create a dialogue, exchange ideas.”

Chua first visited North Korea as a tourist in 2008 and was led around the capital city Pyongyang on a closely monitored group tour. He had to leave his mobile phone behind and couldn’t wander off from the tour’s sanctioned stops.

Trained in architecture and urban planning, Chua longed to speak with locals who shared his interests and to interact openly with them.

Back in Singapore, Chua joined the Choson Exchange – Choson is an ancient name for the Korean Peninsula – and today has travelled to North Korea seven times, putting on workshops, sharing his expertise, and making new friends.

“Their aspirations are not too different from the rest of us,” Chua says.

“They want a better life, better jobs. They are interested, they are inquisitive, they want to gain more knowledge in a field that relates to their area of interest. There’s this other side of North Korea that we don’t usually hear about.”

The group says it has trained about 2,000 North Koreans and brought about 100 to Singapore, with its most recent workshop in North Korea in May, and two more scheduled in August and November. 

The group’s belief that North Korea might open up through person-to-person connections seems validated by the pending US-North Korea summit in Singapore, marking the first time a sitting US president will meet the North Korean leader.

‘Big difference’

Another volunteer, Ian Collins, went to North Korea last November, just as harsh rhetoric and military threats between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hit a fever pitch.

An Australian industrial safety and management coach working in Singapore, Collins faced challenges, from uncertainty over entering the most isolated and secretive country in the world to delivering workshops through translators. But he found the North Korean participants hospitable, curious and hopeful about the future.

“The opportunity to go and make a difference from a completely foreign world to them was an incredible opportunity and experience,” said Collins, who hopes to make a return trip.

“I’m very clear that we made a big difference in their lives. That open dialogue and getting people to understand each other is far better than the military option.”

While North Koreans have limited access to international news, there is a growing awareness of Chinese tech companies, and mobile phones are increasingly common, he said.

The group was founded by Singaporean entrepreneur Geoffrey See after he traveled to North Korea in 2007 and met a university student who wanted to learn the skills needed to become a businesswoman

Hard line critics of the North Korean regime offer the Choson Exchange a grudging respect, while not endorsing its approach to fostering change.

“There are limitations to the ability to change North Korean hearts and minds through exposure to outsiders, due to the regime’s overwhelming coercion, control, surveillance and punishment,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“But kudos to the Choson Exchange for their dedication and hard work, and for consistently pursuing what they believe in.”

Follow Tom Benner on Twitter: @tgbenner

Group activities at the Chosun Exchange [Tom Benner/Al Jazeera]
Group activities at the Chosun Exchange [Tom Benner/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera