‘The Capitalist in North Korea’: Felix Abt Reflects On Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom
North Korea. The very name of the Asian nation conjures up images of goose-stepping soldiers, mass starvation, and leader Kim Jong Un with his finger poised over the launch button for an arsenal of nuclear weapons. Perhaps the most isolated nation in the world, more Westerners visit Antarctica annually than the Hermit Kingdom. And those that do get in are almost always only in the country for a few days, seeing the capital of Pyongyang and its immediate surroundings on highly orchestrated, tightly controlled “tourist trips” monitored by government minders where almost nothing shown matches the reality of the difficulties citizens face.
That’s what makes the experiences of Felix Abt, author of the book A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom, so fascinating. A self-confessed capitalist in the most closed-off country on the planet, Abt lived in North Korea from 2002 to 2009. Originally sent to Pyongyang through his work for power and automation specialists ABB, Abt went on to establish the Pyongyang Business School, raised a family in the North Korean capital, and managed the Pyongsu Pharmaceutical Company, which took him to some of the most isolated parts of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s official name), among many, many other projects.
Receiving high praise from North Korea experts such as University of Vienna professor Rüdiger Frank, who has called the 320-page book a “must-read,” what’s remarkable about A Capitalist in North Korea is the frankness with which Abt chronicles his time there. Rather than focusing purely on the current socio-political situation in North Korea or human rights in the country — as many travel books like Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea do — Abt focuses on his own journey, showing the reader what he was thinking and feeling at the time. The effect is somewhat similar to Karin Muller’s Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa, with an emphasis on personal interactions and development, albeit on a grander scale. One night, for example, Abt was driving home when a Pyongyang traffic police officer stopped his car and jumped in, only to become horrified when he realized he was alone in a vehicle with a foreigner. Shocking as the incident sounds, it is common for traffic police to hitch rides from passing motorists when their shift ends; but, of course, it is considered taboo to be alone with a foreigner — making it an incident which could have gotten both Abt and the police officer in serious trouble. Such personal recollections comprise the backbone of A Capitalist in North Korea, which, although serious in tone, is not negative, as Abt appears to approach each situation he encounters with an open mind.
Having been to North Korea twice previously, GALO recently had a chance to catch up with Abt. Here’s what he had to say.
GALO Magazine: Why did you decide to write a book about your experiences in North Korea?
Felix Abt: I’m not a gifted writer and English is not my first language. All I had published in the past were a few business-related pieces, mostly for specialized management and business magazines. Given my relatively narrow “business focus” and the lack of real writing ability, especially in a foreign language, it would never have crossed my mind to write a book. But the longer I lived in North Korea, the more I realized that there was a wide gap between what was published in books and by newspapers around the globe and what was the reality on the ground. I felt reporting was mostly based on opinion rather than facts, speculation rather than certainty, and often driven by sensationalism. At the beginning, I was just slightly irritated to read all the nonsense about my host country, but over time I became more annoyed at the apocryphal spouting and felt compelled to write a book to give balance to the one-sided reporting. I was determined that it wouldn’t become another partisan publication, but would be an impartial, though bluntly honest account, based on objective information and a true portrayal of what I observed.
GALO: About how long did it take you to write the book?
FA: Since I was busy with my professional activities, I wrote mainly on weekends. It took me more than a year to finish it.
GALO: What was the hardest thing for you about writing A Capitalist in North Korea?
FA: I had a lot of ideas about what should be written in the book, but I didn’t really know where to start and where to finish. Once the structure was determined, I still doubted whether I had chosen the right topics and whether I had given each topic the attention it deserved. If I had to rewrite it, I would perhaps give less historical, political, macroeconomic and cultural context and write more about ventures, adventures and encounters with North Koreans. But when I started writing, I felt readers needed to know a certain amount of background information, since sensationalist and superficial mainstream media hadn’t and wouldn’t provide that.
I also realized that it is important that an inexperienced author has an editor who is an outstanding writer to revise his manuscript and to make sure that the book is appealing enough to publishers and readers. My editor, Geoffrey Cain, is not only a brilliant writer but, having a degree in oriental studies and having lived in East Asian countries including Korea, had an outstanding grasp of my story.
GALO: Why did you choose the title A Capitalist in North Korea?
FA: I don’t think this book title sells particularly well, but it is representative of the book’s content and, to me, authenticity was more important than a sexy title. If, for example, you interview six defectors who lived in the crisis years of the ’90s in North Korea’s probably worst affected city, Chongjin, and give your book the title “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in Chongjin in the ’90s,” it would perhaps have sold just a few copies, but as “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” (by Barbara Demick), it has become the bestselling North Korea book ever, and it’s still selling far more than mine. This illustrates that a title is of great importance in the successful marketing of a book, but it may not necessarily reflect its true content.
GALO: What exactly was the publishing process of A Capitalist in North Korea like? Did you write the book and then find a publisher, or were publishers already interested beforehand?
FA: Since I was not a defector with, say, a horrific concentration camp story to tell, nobody was interested in a book by me, a western businessman, and certainly not before it was even written. So I did what 99 percent of other would-be authors do: I finished my manuscript and started finding and getting in touch with literary agents, sort of gatekeepers between writers and the publishing industry, and also contacting publishers directly. The difference between a job seeker who sends out 100 CVs and an author who sends out 100 manuscripts is that the job seeker usually gets many (friendly, though disappointing) standard answers, whereas the author mostly receives no acknowledgment at all. Somehow I struck lucky and did manage to sign a contract with an agent, but the contract was subsequently cancelled after less than a year as she was unable to convince any publisher to take the book on. The book simply didn’t meet the expectations of the publishers she contacted, who would have been more interested in another gruesome North Korea tale, which ideally should have been more frightening, vivid and shocking than all its predecessors. That’s why I first uploaded it on Amazon Kindle, as a self-publisher, while continuing to look for a commercial publisher. At last, it’s now published by a company with a core competence in literature related to Asia and I have a far happier ending to my story than many other authors.