Students in front of a poster that says "Business Model Canvas"
Credit: Jukka-Pekka Heikkilä

Lessons Learned from Frontier Entrepreneurship Education in North Korea

North Korea entrepreneurship East Asia
https://doi.org/10.1126/scidip.ado5059

Being an entrepreneurship educator in North Korea between 2013 and 2017 was an extremely eye-opening experience. One of my main insights from those years is that feasible ideas for entrepreneurship can exist even in an institutional void. The very existence of such ideas and views that hope for a better future may help stabilize conflict-sensitive regions like the Korean peninsula.1 My experiences taught me that carefully localized entrepreneurship education can help entrepreneurs see themselves as changemakers.

Research based on these educational projects has improved our collective understanding of the effect of entrepreneurship training on elite students,2 how ideas for new ventures can emerge in extreme situations, and how to tackle grand challenges collaboratively. Particularly interesting is the process of adapting to local needs in designing educational programs and how humor and conversations about love can enable and support knowledge transfer in sensitive situations.

As a professor at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology,3 I was able to pilot entrepreneurial education modules4 by presenting entrepreneurship education as a window to the outside world and specifically the capitalist system. North Korea’s socialist system and lack of official private entrepreneurship framework creates a challenging environment for entrepreneurship. Private entrepreneurship is not officially recognized in the country and lack of exposure to market economies limits understanding of entrepreneurial concepts and practices. Engaging in entrepreneurship that challenges the existing official system or involves politics is politically risky. It was easy to cross lines unintentionally—for example, in discussing bankruptcy as a potential consequence of entrepreneurship; bankruptcy, and failure in general, does not occur in North Korea’s economic reality.

Entrepreneurship education can nevertheless be impactful when it is delivered with cultural sensitivity, avoiding topics that may directly offend or contradict social and political norms. Framing the education around ideation for societal improvement and encouraging students to generate concepts that address local challenges, such as rural living conditions, empower them to take initiative and be creative in solving problems. Modules can also focus on communal aspects and entrepreneurial ecosystem building, which encourages people-to-people diplomacy, interactions, and collaboration—all contributing to more positive views of the outside world.

During the second entrepreneurship course in 2015, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Nobel Laureate Peter Agre, who regularly visited North Korea for science diplomacy.5 In a Pyongyang coffeeshop, he shared advice that has stayed with me for a long time: “Don’t get involved in politics of system change, no matter how tempting it may be with these types of topics. Use your classroom time to transfer new business knowledge from Northern Europe. It’s enough. Keep opening doors and minds, instead of closing them by offending locals and their culture.”

My primary aim was not to help students create feasible businesses or discuss trade policies, but to focus on ideation for improving rural living conditions. This is not as innocuous as it sounds, since acknowledging that there are problems is largely taboo. But framing improvement as a business idea enabled students to discuss societal challenges in ways they would not normally be able to, for example during the Pyongyang Startup Week event in 2016.6 In this way, entrepreneurship education stretches in many directions, as a tool for science diplomacy.

I occasionally calibrated the content in the classroom to bring forward possibilities for a dialogue between cultures and countries. For example, the screening of the documentary Startup Kids was well received by the student as it highlights that even in capitalist societies, young people experience difficulties, showcasing the financial struggles and daily life of startup founders in Europe.7 The classroom discussions that followed made it clear that young North Koreans share the same worries as everyone: money and love.

Indeed, the trouble of dating was a particularly popular topic, providing a refuge if I inadvertently strayed into taboo territory. I became skilled in reading student reactions to taboo topics such as failure, and learned on these occasions to steer conversations to these more universal topics—a classroom tactic underscoring a diplomatic pedagogical approach. Another classroom tactic that proved popular was to use sarcasm and dry humor, which over time became a means to communicate aspects of daily life in other places.

My experiences in Pyongyang highlighted the deficiencies of highly standardized and “conventional” business education. In developing my own educational practice, I have learned that content that bridges the differences between standard and local contexts through humor can produce positive entrepreneurial outcomes. This approach also provides a space for scientific diplomacy such that greater understanding of differences is achieved. Entrepreneurship education needs, therefore, to localize its content to match the needs of entrepreneurs in isolated and extreme environments. This could involve having participants co-create modules for entrepreneurial community building, using peer-reviewed problem-based methodologies to tackle corruption, and offering practical entrepreneurial techniques drawn from scholarly literature, such as flexibility, resilience, and communication.

Such soft skills can contribute to the development of well-rounded and diplomatic entrepreneurs in any context. These pioneers might someday drive societal change. Should international relations improve, entrepreneurship education initiatives in North Korea and in other isolated environments could serve as vehicles to foster greater understanding between different societies, contributing to science diplomacy. The focus on generating ideas for improving rural living conditions, rather than delving into sensitive political topics, aligns with science diplomacy’s emphasis on collaboration to address shared challenges. This not only enables knowledge transfer in sensitive situations but also aligns with the principles of science diplomacy by avoiding offense and respecting local culture. Taken together, these approaches can help bridge the gap between theory and practice in training. Furthermore, designing locally responsive, science-based education modules also presents a novel opportunity for the revitalization of the field of science diplomacy, and by applying a relevant impact measurement framework,8 this approach could contribute to the recent calls for more effective science diplomacy.9

 

Endnotes

  1. Ewald Kibler, Bernadetta A. Ginting-Szczesny, Eero Vaara, and Jukka-Pekka Heikkilä,  “Envisioning Entrepreneurial Engagement in North Korea,” Academy of Management Discoveries 8, no. 3 (2022): 459–489.

  2. Thomas Wainwright, Ewald Kibler, Jukka-Pekka Heikkilä, and Simon Down, “Elite Entrepreneurship Education: Translating Ideas in North Korea,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 50, no. 5 (2018): 1008–1026.

  3. Richard Stone, “Crunch Time for North Korea’s Revolutionary New University,” Science 334 (2011): 1624–1625.

  4. This voluntary program is finished and will not resume until the tensions in the Korean Peninsula ease considerably.

  5. Kirsten West, “A Conversation with Dr. Peter Agre about Nobel Prizes and Science Diplomacy,” Statistical Journal of the IAOS 32, no. 2, (2016): 149–155.

  6. “Pyongyang Startup Week,” Financial Times World Notebook (2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hjhrk2F9RKI.

  7. Startup Kids, directed by Vala Halldorsdottir and Sesselja Vilhjalmsdottir (2012).

  8. Hans Rawhouser, Michael Cummings, and Scott L. Newbert, “Social Impact Measurement: Current Approaches and Future Directions for Social Entrepreneurship Research,” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 43, no. 1 (2019): 82–115.

  9. Cathleen A. Campbell, “Putting Science Diplomacy to Work,” Science & Diplomacy, October 12, 2022, www.sciencediplomacy.org/perspective/2022/putting-science-diplomacy-work

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