Asia scholar Andray Abrahamian organized many projects to promote economic change in North Korea over the past decade, including that country’s first two ultimate frisbee tournaments. So when he spoke at Carleton College in Northfield last week, the first thing Abrahamian did was acknowledge the school’s prominence in the sport. [Its intercollegiate team is a perennial power and most of the school’s students play in intramural leagues.]
“It’s really fun for me to come to one of the spiritual homes of ultimate frisbee,” he said. When the U.S. lifts a travel ban on North Korea, he added, he’d like to organize another tournament there.
Abrahamian is the former executive director of Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based organization that for years taught business and marketing skills to North Koreans with programs inside the country and classes in other countries. Its activities declined after the North’s nuclear tests in 2016 prompted an international backlash that included a widening of sanctions (though it still has two events planned later this year inside North Korea).
This academic year, he’s a visiting scholar in the Korea program at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, but he was in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, early last month. [A Brit, Abrahamian can travel more easily to the country than Americans can.] There, he found sanctions are taking a toll.
“People in Pyongyang complain but they are not seeing privation,” he said. But he added the last people to be hurt by sanctions will be those in control of the country. “North Korea could exist in this harsh climate for a long time,” he said.
Abrahamian visited Carleton with the director of Shorenstein APARC’s Korea program, Gi-wook Shin, and executives from the Korea Foundation, a South Korean government-funded organization that promotes Korean studies. Under Shin, the Stanford program has become a central player in the U.S. dialogue with North Korea. Just weeks before the U.S.-North Korea summit earlier this year, it hosted Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, who laid out the Trump administration’s line.
Shin told the Carleton crowd the U.S. has forced North Korea to make a difficult choice to either develop its economy, which the U.S. and other countries would like it to do, or develop nuclear weapons, which the U.S. and other countries don’t want it to do. “Ideally, they’d like to have the bomb and economic development,” Shin said.
Abrahamian said North Korea’s government no longer holds complete sway over the economy. “There is a huge state sector, but there is a more important, and probably bigger, private economy,” he said.
That happened because, during the famine of the 1990s, North Koreans had no other choice but to take steps to get money to feed themselves. “What happened up was bottom-marketization,” he said. “This was driven by women finding things to sell, going to the local town and creating markets. The state has adjusted to this … Now, there’s over 500 official markets.”
There’s even marketing, which Abrahamian said he likes to think Choson Exchange helped to create. He showed pictures of a marathon event where retailers set up tables to sell running shoes.
“This shoe vendor was giving a free extra pair of shoes if you bought a single pair of fake Nikes,” he said, explaining a sign in one picture. “That sort of thinking was absent in North Korea a few years ago, but now it is prevalent.”
Even so, Abrahamian said he's not making plans for another ultimate frisbee tournament in North Korea anytime soon.