Book Excerpt introduced on January 29, 2013 by NKnews.org, the internet’s No.1 source for breaking North Korean news, analysis, culture and curiosities + professional, academic and student resources
Viagra in North Korea? No Thanks
Ever wondered how sex, contraception, and dealing with impotence works in North Korea? Felix Abt, a Swiss businessman who spent seven years living in the country, knows the answer.
Having managed one of North Korea’s leading pharmaceutical brands during his time living there, Abt’s professional experiences showed him an aspect of life few foreigners will ever come into contact with. Working to establish one of the first international class production lines in the DPRK, his company opened a number of pharmacies around the country that introduced consumers to non-generic drugs for the first time. Through that work Abt learnt much about the way that DPRK society works on a multitude of levels and reveals all in his new book entitled, “A Capitalist in North Korea”.
In the first of several excerpts to be published from his new book, NK NEWS brings you Abt’s account of sex, contraception, and viagra in North Korea.
Unlike most so-called developing countries, North Korea is home to an aging population, because women are having on average 2.02 babies—barely enough to sustain the population numbers, according to a 2010 report by Statistics Korea. The demographic is in part because most young couples bear one child. The government, in response, has taken a pragmatic response to population growth rather than a Leninist one: it urges families to have more children, and discourages abortions and even contraceptives even though they are legal.
North Korean women often use contraceptive coils, or small plastic devices inserted into the womb. Men get condoms from friends who bring them back from abroad. When I was running the pharmaceutical company I wanted to import and distribute condoms and other contraceptives, hoping they would be a commercial success. But the government didn’t hand over a permit because it needed more babies, not less.
My company also looked into selling Viagra and Cialis, products also popular with Korean men. The government wouldn’t mind, I thought, as these aphrodisiacs would get couples heated up and create more kids. I was quickly proven wrong when denied the permit. Ms. Thak, a pharmacist, revealed the reasons to me: “The result of the higher sexual appetite of men would not have led to more children but to more abortions,” she claimed.
In 2007, I was approached by the North Korean inventor of a drug he called “Natural Viagra,” a gimmicky mixture of herbs. He asked me to market it within North Korea and abroad and gave me samples. I passed them on to some friends who were using the original version of Viagra, who concluded that Viagra and Cialis offered better results. Still, the North Korean government admitted Natural Viagra for sales, and now I understand its reasoning. We would not sell this as I was keen on building the reputation of the pharmaceutical company.
North Koreans are, in fact, human beings, and like all other humans, they do have a sense of humor and sometimes tell dirty jokes. Some of these jokes were about husbands and wives who had extramarital affairs that made listeners, including myself, laugh. “When does a wife know that her husband is cheating on her? When he starts complaining about the lack of water as he wants to have two showers a week.” This was one of the many popular jokes.
With this, it was implicitly acknowledged that marital unfaithfulness was not an absolute taboo, even if it was frowned upon. In fact, I knew two Korean couples who had extramarital affairs.
Does prostitution exist in North Korea? Officially, no. It is illegal and subject to severe punishment, such as a “corrective” year-long stay in a labor camp. Street prostitution is too visible and too risky. Still, some North Korean men can afford an occasional day of massage and sauna. Often over lunch or after work, I heard men gossiping about which women in the parlors offered better “services” than others. Of course, that’s with the caveat that the statement leaves much room for interpretation.
By offering discreet services, women can dole in a lot of money by North Korean standards, sometimes out of the sheer necessity to support their families. And for all the moralistic ideology, sex work isn’t a completely absent phenomenon. Indeed, some “flowers of the nation” may now be for sale, as I understood the half-joking remarks of men who said they were seeking to buy the pejorative “beautiful flowers.” While marketization is about to lead to more prosperity in North Korea, sex may also become just another tradable product.
On the other hand, ever since women have overwhelmingly become family breadwinners, some female traders have increasingly had to take journeys away from their husbands that lasted weeks. They told me that sometimes these women have boyfriends and lovers who they financially support on the side. In that way, North Korean women aren’t much different than some of their counterparts from around the world!
Book Exerpt introduced on February 5, 2013 by NKnews.org, the internet’s No.1 source for breaking North Korean news, analysis, culture and curiosities + professional, academic and student resources
‘The Whole World Knows We Koreans Are Best!’
If you’ve ever read “The Cleanest Race” by BR Myers, you’ll know that concepts of ethnic superiority are commonplace in North Korean propaganda. From a young age, many North Koreans are raised to believe that their country is the center of the world and that they truly belong to a culture and ideology that is superior to other nations. With that in mind, what must it actually be like for foreigners living and working in the country for an extended period?
Having lived and worked in North Korea for seven years as a foreign businessman, Felix Abt’s experiences showed him first hand how concepts of ethnic-superiority affect real life in North Korea. In the second of several excerpts to be published from his new book, NK NEWS brings you Abt’s account of how North Koreans view national purity.
One December, I got a taste of the frigid winter life near the Chinese border. In the process, I came to understand how triumphantly North Koreans hold their sense of national purity. On the train to Pyongyang from the Chinese border town of Dandong, I chatted with locals who were curious about me, my family, my life in Pyongyang, and about what I was doing in their country.
I told them about my wife and my little daughter. Thinking my wife was from Switzerland, they asked if it was not too difficult for her to adapt to life in North Korea. I explained, in what turned out to be a faux pas, that my wife was not Swiss but a Vietnamese woman born in Hanoi. I went on, perhaps to their discomfort, to explain how Vietnam and North Korea were full of similarities in both eating habits and culture.
The conversation came to an abrupt halt and I wondered if I had offended my new acquaintances. Of course I had, I thought. North Koreans are proud of the purity of their race and their culture, which they believe to be untainted by decadent foreign influences. They thought that only puppet South Koreans married foreigners, who were inferior to themselves, and that these nuptials were a consequence of Western oppression.
My friends were uneasy that a comrade from the capital of the Vietnamese socialist revolution, an event Americans call the “Vietnam War,” married a foreigner from a non-socialist European country. The revelation must have startled them: it was the latest evidence that the DPRK’s ally betrayed its revolutionary roots.
After an awkward bout of silence, I relaunched the conversation with a joke. “It is a known fact that mixed children pick the best genes from both parents and tend, therefore, to become superior to their parents,” I said. A new theory of superior races was instantly born. One fellow traveler apparently challenged in their beliefs, responded politely, “Is that so? Interesting!” The conversation then resumed, though they didn’t touch on family matters again.
Historians pretty much concur that, in prehistoric times, the ancestors of present-day Koreans migrated from North Asia. But this theory would have been heresy in the eyes of my fellow travelers. North Koreans consider their nation to be one cradle of humanity, which gave birth to the ancestors of all of humankind. The North Korean government, of course, does not give much thought to the archaeological evidence that countless tongues were spoken here, all bearing little relation to today’s Korean language.
To be fair, though, the idea of racial purity stretched beyond Pyongyang and even into South Korea. Until 2006, biracial South Koreans were not allowed to serve in the military even if they held South Korean citizenship; nevertheless, all other citizens were required to serve for two years in the armed forces. Even today discrimination against biracial South Koreans is still common in the countryside. They’re often teased and bullied at school, and not a single yet has held public office. North Koreans, it would appear, have more in common with their southern brethren than is usually stated.
Others have had it worse than me. My friend Eduard Meier-Lee had a South Korean wife, and was on the receiving end of even more racially charged questions when he visited Pyongyang in 2003. One evening I took him to a centrally-located Japanese restaurant, where we sang karaoke after dinner. The charming waitresses, wearing their typical Chosŏn Ot national dress, invited us to sing and dance with them. They were very keen to learn about Edi’s family life, thanks to his decision to marry a South Korean. The pairing was so outrageous to them that they bombarded him with questions and ignored me.
Until the early 1960s, mixed marriages were allowed in the DPRK. But that opening was long before the waitresses, all in their twenties, were born and they were surely not aware of this. In 1963 the Party began a campaign against mixed couples, going as far as to ask interracial couples to divorce—mainly Korean and Eastern European couples. Since then, the party story line has been that South Korean women were forced by the brutal American occupation forces into prostitution and arranged marriages. The liberated women in the DPRK, on the other hand, could marry the man of their choice, who was, of course, always a Korean.
Another time, a group of foreign children—mostly the kids of diplomats—were invited to play soccer and rope-pull with their North Korean counterparts. The Korean children overwhelmingly defeated the foreigners in every game by a significant margin. North Korean parents cheered on their allegedly superior offspring, once more reassured in the natural strength of their race. They probably didn’t know that their children trained for weeks or month before the informal competition, whereas the expatriate kids arrived unprepared.
After a seminar at the Pyongyang Business School, I drove the lecturer from Hong Kong to the airport, and we joked around and had a jolly time. The jokes were certainly not politically correct and could be perceived as offensive in the wrong context. My secretary sat silently in the back, and didn’t say a word. On the way back home, she suddenly broke out crying and yelled that my behavior was not acceptable. She exclaimed that she didn’t want to work with me any longer, and then shouted: “The whole world knows that we Koreans are the best!”
I tried to explain to her that we were only being sarcastic, and not specifically directing our jokes at the Koreans. We also insulted ourselves in a comic way, I added, and that it was merely a misunderstanding. I indeed had a high respect for the Korean people. Usually, my secretary carried herself with an excellent sense of self-control, and she would not have offered sharp words under normal circumstances; she was legitimately offended and expressed what North Koreans truly thought about themselves.
After a few years in Pyongyang, I realized that the ways North Koreans viewed themselves had two faces: one targeting the outside world, and one discussed among North Koreans themselves. North Koreans were trained to be polite with foreigners and to skirt around political talk that could antagonize these impure humans. Like many East Asians, they’re pragmatic enough to subordinate their personal views to the higher calling of bringing in foreign investment and charity. They would never tell a foreigner that he is a suspected sleuth or trouble maker, or that his work in the country equals an expression of greatness of the Kim regime.
Yet this is exactly what they believe in, at least under the surface. My staff occasionally translated political slogans, book, newspaper texts, and even North Korean songs played in Karaoke rooms. I correspondingly scoured through the English-language literature on ideology and politics, finding some differences in the way they portrayed ideas.
To name one example, our guides told American tourists, “We love American civilians!” Kim Il Sung, however, used to call upon the Workers’ Party to always prepare for war against the Americans by instilling hatred against them: “The most important thing in our war preparations is to teach all our people to hate U.S. imperialism. Otherwise, we will not be able to defeat the U.S. imperialists who boast of their technological superiority.”
I also tried to spark improvised discussions that revealed their true mindsets. While this helped me understand the business environment, my inquiries destroyed my wishful thinking that I, along with most other foreigners, come to believe during short visits. We can acknowledge, with a jest of humor, that they see themselves as exceptional, and get along with it.
Book Excerpt introduced on February 18, 2013 by NKnews.org, the internet’s No.1 source for breaking North Korean news, analysis, culture and curiosities + professional, academic and student resources
How Sanctions Stop Legitimate North Korean Trade
With North Korea’s third nuclear test likely paving the way for another round of sanctions at the United Nations in the coming weeks, it looks like business and enterprise in the DPRK is about to get even more difficult. Having endured tightening UN sanctions for years, it’s not clear yet what sanctions architects have in mind to punish Pyongyang for the latest test. But while it is often claimed that sanctions are only designed to interfere with the activities of the leadership and military, their often blunt characteristics mean there is always a risk that normal trade will be put at risk. With this in mind, what must it actually be like for North Koreans and foreigners trying to conduct legitimate business on the ground in North Korea?
Having lived and worked in North Korea for seven years as a foreign businessman, Felix Abt’s experiences showed him first hand how sanctions make it difficult, if impossible, to conduct legitimate business in areas that would otherwise be regarded as sacrosanct in other countries. In the third of several excerpts to be published from his new book, NK NEWS brings you Abt’s account of how sanctions affect ordinary North Koreans.
Given the country’s troubled history and estranged political position, it would be fair to look at the isolationism and socialist red tape from the view of North Koreans. Few other countries have had to deal with the massive quarantines that Western and Asian powers have enclosed around the North Korean economy. Unfortunately, these often unjust penalties were upsetting for doing business and only worsened the prospects for North Korean development.
Any capital in the world, regardless of its political system, should have a sewage system that protects its residents from water-borne diseases like cholera, a scourge of the developing world. But when Pyongyang’s Russian-built water supply and drainage system needed to be overhauled due to leakage and water losses reported as high as 50 per cent, the state made an international tender call for a project that would turn out ill-fated due to bilateral U.S. sanctions on North Korea.
The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, a financing body for development projects run by the Kuwaiti government, offered $20 million to fund the undertaking—an ironic donor, considering the country was (as it is today) a close ally of the U.S. My then employer, ABB, was familiar with the Australian consulting firm that managed the project on behalf of the Kuwaiti fund and had good connections with the Pyongyang People’s Committee. In an attempt to get that contract, my Korean staff tapped into their contacts that would lead us to the government decision makers. We fed the People’s Committee with technical information on the project’s center piece, our SCADA control system for the water purification system, which I was hoping they would agree to using. My staff and I were sure that we would win this tender.
But once again, trade embargoes got in the way. The SCADA-system runs on PCs with Microsoft software, causing our company’s head of this division (who was an Indian man living in the U.S.), to get nervous about participating in the tender competition with an offer. The consequences could be disastrous for his portfolio in the U.S. if the government chose to enforce sanctions.
I argued that the American software constituted only a minuscule portion of the whole scope of supply, and that they should ask for a formal permit to get the U.S. approval. This move would have likely been no problem, as Microsoft software didn’t constitute technology that could be used for military purposes. They replied that it would take a long time for the request to move through the cumbersome bureaucracies in Washington. It was a loss for us and for North Korea, and one that made my staff furious after all their long hours that went into marketing our idea.
On another occasion in 2008, I had to fear for the survival of my pharmaceutical factory, PyongSu, a company into which I put my heart and soul. I was its managing director around the same time the United Nations slapped even more sanctions on North Korea in the mid-2000s in protest of its nuclear test. In a very poorly timed move by international groups, I was no longer allowed to import certain chemicals for laboratory tests even though they were designed to bring better health-care to the bucolic countryside. We were left without the chemicals we needed to analyze our product samples and ingredients to ensure they were free of contamination.
Later the Chinese authorities confiscated a parcel of reagents at the Air Koryo storage room in Beijing that we had ordered before the international community put sanctions on Pyongyang. I called the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang to protest who said that they, or government contractors acting on their behalf, would inspect the use of imported chemicals at our factory. The proposal was embarrassing to the Chinese, who didn’t want to get involved in any brewing disputes with the Western countries. But they equally didn’t want to be accused of taking a lax stance on North Korea. Luckily, we found suppliers within North Korea, so we could avoid the headache and legal risks of importing the supposedly “illegal” products ourselves.
These are just two examples of how sanctions, applied in a short-sighted way, can hurt regular people who need health-care instead of the government they’re targeting.