‘The Capitalist in North Korea’: Felix Abt Reflects On Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom
GALO: What is the writing process like for you (how do you get in the “mood” to write, how much might you write on an “average” day, how do you do research, etc.)?
FA: Perhaps my life as a business man has conditioned me too much, which means I wrote the book as if I was executing a business plan or a plan of action: I set a deadline for finishing a chapter; started with systematic research related to it; collected all the information, happenings, events and anecdotes I could remember; sorted, structured and prioritized the data; and then wrote it down as fast as I could with the aim of achieving the set goal.
GALO: How did it feel to hold this book that you’d written and put so much energy into in your hands for the first time?
FA: Of course, I felt happy and grateful that, at long last, the book had made it to the bookshelves. And Benjamin Disraeli came to my mind when he said: “The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.”
GALO: A Capitalist in North Korea has received high praise from DPRK experts like Jeff Baron of 38 North, Leonid Petrov, Curtis Melvin, Emmy Award winner Justin Rohrlich, Bradley K. Martin, Timothy Beal, Nicolas Levi and University of Vienna professor Rüdiger Frank, who has called it a “must-read.” What do you think of all the acclaim?
FA: I thought the book can’t be too bad when reading what these respected and well-informed personalities had to say about it. I received many other reviews and comments, often by people preferring anonymity, which strongly criticized and rejected the book. This is perhaps not surprising, since there is no other country where so many people feel so free to pass judgment about a society about which they know so little. I can understand their reaction: if you read and hear only horrifying news about a country for decades, you expect nothing but shocking accounts of cruelty and subjection to come out of it. A balanced view showing an altogether different picture is therefore too much of a challenge and cannot be accepted by many readers.
GALO: One thing that’s so striking about A Capitalist in North Korea is how human everyone is, and the detail with which people are brought to life and events are recollected. As you were writing, did you find yourself going into much more detail than you thought you would, or remembering things you thought you had forgotten?
FA: Yes, I was surprised how much I remembered, and I would most likely have forgotten much of it forever if I had not written it in the book. It was also a way to preserve some of the experiences for my daughter to read later, as she was too small when we were there to keep an appreciation of the country and our time there.
GALO: At 320 pages, A Capitalist in North Korea is quite long. But then again, you spent seven years in the DPRK. Is there anything left out of the book that you wish you had included?
FA: I didn’t mention the most embarrassing episodes or things that could have been perceived as “politically incorrect” as I was anxious to avoid causing any undue trouble for anyone.
GALO: In one fascinating section, you explain how one night a Pyongyang traffic police officer stopped your car and jumped in, only to become horrified when he realized he was alone in a vehicle with a foreigner. Since the incident could reinforce suspicions, you decided to tell your office the next day about what happened. Why did the police officer jump into your car in the first place? And what was going through your mind while this was happening?
FA: I drove around a bend and saw a policeman indicating for me to stop. As it was very dark, he could not have recognized my car number plate or my face, which obviously would have revealed the fact that I was a foreigner. It’s quite common for policemen and women to stop cars after work to get a lift home and car drivers usually comply. I thought he just wanted to check my papers and so was surprised when he jumped into the car. It was only then that he realized his mistake, but we both dealt with the surprising event pragmatically. It wasn’t until the next day that it occurred to me that this meant more in the DPRK than just giving a lift to somebody on a dark, cold night and that there might have been repercussions.
GALO: A Capitalist in North Korea also describes a changing DPRK. In one section, you state that “In the mid to long-term, the DPRK cannot survive without true economic reforms, and the party knows this. If it refuses them, it will collapse as badly as the socialist countries in Eastern Europe did two decades earlier.” What do you mean by “changing?”
FA: Since it won’t be possible to maintain the status quo forever, the DPRK will have to adopt economic and social reforms, probably just like China and Vietnam did previously. This process is not without risk to the political system, but a gradual controlled opening could be feasible without a major upheaval, provided the reforms lead quickly to substantial economic growth and much more prosperity, [just] as it happened in the aforementioned examples.
GALO: Now that you’ve written such an in-depth, personal account of the DPRK, do you think you will be allowed to return to the country? Do you even plan on returning sometime?
FA: The book has already been read in Pyongyang, and when I visited a few weeks ago, I discussed it openly with people there. Though, understandably, there are a number of things with which they disagree, they also recognize that my book was not written with an agenda, such as the promotion of the overthrow of the regime or raking in as much money as possible thanks to a sensationalist story. They must have realized that it is exceptional, in that it does not concentrate exclusively on negative aspects of the country, but tries to present a balanced and truthful account. So, yes! I’m still welcome to visit the country.
GALO: Obviously, foreigners can be viewed suspiciously by some DPRK citizens. Were there times when you felt lonely being one of a very, very small number of foreigners in the country? How did you cope?
FA: Since I was involved in a host of different business activities which opened many doors and led to numerous contacts, I was soon known to many people. And after I was interviewed by the national TV, people in the street, elevators and restaurants smiled at me, nodded and greeted me amicably. I was perceived not only as a useful foreigner, but also as a friendly, trustworthy one, and bonding with Koreans was therefore not so difficult. So I never really felt lonely.
GALO: What is it that you miss most about living in the DPRK?
FA: The outings with staff and business partners, where anecdotes were swapped and jokes bandied: they were good fun and the people great company — and, of course, the great food.
GALO: Conversely, is there something you DON’T miss?
FA: The harsh winters with insufficient heating, that’s why I’m living now in a beach resort-town where we always have warm weather.
GALO: Do you plan on writing more books about the DPRK?
FA: No, I think with this book I have said what I had to say. I will continue to give presentations to business groups and talk to business people to offer advice and try and help them succeed in their upcoming, challenging ventures in this country. As I said in my book, I sincerely believe business is the only effective way to bring North Korea and its people in from the cold.
“A Capitalist in North Korea” is currently available for sale via nationwide booksellers as well as online retailers like Amazon. Readers can also check out Abt’s North Korea photo gallery, which includes photos from his time in the DPRK.