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The Value of Human Exchange and North Korea

The diplomatic detente between the United States and North Korea can be seen as a potential new path forward for the long-time adversaries. Indeed, the first of the four points of the Singapore declaration states that the two countries will “commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations.” This article is often overlooked due to the attention given to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, however it is important to investigate areas for common ground. Although the declaration does not specify the process through which new relations will be established, a good place to start is with human exchange. This includes tourism, as well as training programs intended to assist with development. In the case of the U.S. and North Korea, history can serve as a useful guide for how to proceed.

Workers Unite! And Make Money

At the policy level, human exchange receives far less attention than major economic or security matters, but in reality, it can have a significant impact. In particular, it has played an important role in normalizing relations with current and former communist nations that have a history of confrontation with the United States.

Former American president Dwight Eisenhower understood this concept well. Despite the United States and Soviet Union's ideological opposition and their struggle for global influence, Eisenhower continued to advocate for student exchange programs between the two nations. In the end, Eisenhower’s insistence was rewarded. Through raw American experiences and through exposure to Western culture as it made its way to the Eastern bloc, Soviets of all ages saw opportunities that were unavailable behind the Iron Curtain. Oleg Kalugin, a young KGB officer who studied at Columbia University in New York in the 1950s as part of a government program, famously stated after the fall of the Soviet Union that these “Exchanges...opened up a closed society.”

America’s perception of the other communist behemoth, China, oscillated during the cold war, spanning from “positive” to “oppressive,” and eventually viewing them as an “enemy.” Now, in the 21st century, there is not only billions of dollars being made through commerce between the two nations, but tourism and academic exchanges have boomed. Over 350,000 Chinese students studied in the United States during the 2016-17 school year, and over 14,000 American students studied in China in the 2012-13 school year. The publication Foreign Policy undertook a project dedicated to analyzing student exchanges between the two nations. They conducted surveys of American students who are currently studying, or have recently studied, in China. Nearly 80% of respondents stated that their experiences in China had given them a more positive view of the country.

Vietnam is relatively new to human exchange with the United States. Despite being pummeled by American bombs during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese people now welcome American tourism and investment dollars. A 2017 survey by PewGlobal found that 78% of Vietnamese people polled have a positive view of the United States. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all visited Vietnam, and Obama hosted the Communist Party leader at the White House. As one of the latest Asian countries experiencing rapid growth and development, foreign investment in Vietnam has skyrocketed in the past two decades, including tourism. Recent research has found that tourism made a significant contribution to its rapidly rising GDP. Vietnam is also increasing its number of high-skilled workers, many of whom receive training from countries with advanced economies, including the United States and its allies.

Cuba is the most recent communist nation to open its doors to American business and travelers. In 2015, the United States and Cuba revived diplomatic relations, which had been severed since the early 1960s. On the eve of diplomatic normalization, an overwhelming majority of Cubans were in favor of better relations with the United States, mainly due to the potential economic benefits. American businesses have been looking forward to investment opportunities there and to helping Cubans embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. Tourism to the Caribbean islands dropped in 2017 due to President Trump’s hard-line policies and a still unresolved spate of injuries to American diplomats stationed there. However, it appears that in the second part of 2018, tourism numbers have begun to rise.

North Korea

With the exception of Russia (ironically, the original communist nation when it was the Soviet Union) all of the previously discussed countries have maintained their communist systems of government, and are at varying points on the spectrum of relations with the United States. North Korea could very well take a similar path, and experience the benefits of human exchange.

Tourism is an easy place to start. If the United States were to lift its tourism ban, enacted in September 2017, North Korea can pledge to be more accommodating to American travelers. Although some argue that exposure, even in small doses, is a humanizing act, it should be noted that the effects of tourism in North Korea are difficult to measure. Interactions between Western tourists and locals have always been highly restricted. Even in the event of continued diplomatic rapprochement, it is unlikely the government in Pyongyang would allow American travelers greater freedom and access to locals.

While tourism can be seen as a simple confidence-building measure, the most meaningful human exchange comes in the form of industry-targeted training programs. As one of the least developed countries in the world, North Korea is essentially a blank canvas, and the United States is an artist with every color at their disposal.

The U.S. is also the largest stakeholder in many international organizations, and coordinated efforts can provide resources across a variety of sectors, such infrastructure development, healthcare, education, and many others. Plenty of international organizations are already committed to aiding and developing emerging economies. A 2015 OECD report stated that “Broad and continued access to training and skills development opens up the opportunities for and benefits of both initial and lifelong learning to all.” The World Bank has formed a partnership with the South Korean Ministry of Labor to promote “skills development and job creation in the region.” Based on the current upward diplomatic trajectory of the two Koreas, North Korea is a potential beneficiary of this lucrative partnership.

A Foundation in Place

Human exchange with North Korea already exists, though on a very limited scale. The Choson Exchange is a Singapore-based organization that brings in successful business leaders and scholars to train North Korea’s entrepreneurial class. In Canada, Kyung Ae Park, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has been hosting North Korean professors since 2011. The professors stay for six month periods to study English, economics, and other subjects. Park often travels to Pyongyang, where she says that she follows up with the professors and directly sees the positive effects of the program. The United States can adopt these models as blueprints and increase the scope of the programs. With its boundless resources and technological capacity, the U.S. is well-positioned to share expertise and provide the training necessary to help breathe life into North Korea’s fledgling economy. North Korea’s quickest path to joining the world community is taking advantage of the developmental assistance available.

Other nations have proved that it is possible to maintain communist government control while adopting market principles. North Korea is no exception. The marketization in the country is well-known, and even has tacit approval from the government. The rise of markets has naturally led to a budding entrepreneurial class. Imagine the possibilities if business leaders in impoverished North Korea gained access to the resources the United States can offer. Educating the local workforce is the most effective way to encourage long-term, sustainable development, and to establish the personal relationships that are critical in improving U.S.-DPRK relations.


Establishing human exchange networks comes with many political challenges. Unlike its communist comrades, who all roundly demonized the United States, North Korea was born from, and has partly sustained itself on, explicit animosity towards the U.S. This history can be overcome, but it cannot be done quickly. To begin, the government in Pyongyang can remove the signs around the country that depict Americans as savages, and tone down anti-U.S. imperialist rhetoric in public. However, changing the deep-rooted mindsets of the people may be a longer process.

Conversely, the United States must learn from the mistaken notion that any country that does business with it will inevitably be enticed by its ideals, and join the liberal world order. That is not to say that the U.S. should ignore the human rights violations and other civil society issues that require serious attention in North Korea, but America must adjust its expectations. Many American liberal scholars believed that exposure to American culture would facilitate an eventual transition of Russia and China into the U.S.-led liberal world order. Now, thirty years after the end of the Cold War, US-Russian relations have reached new levels of confrontation. Meanwhile, China has embraced a market economy, but the Communist Party has tightened its grip on power in Beijing.

Transparency is another issue. North Korea is one of the most opaque countries in the world in terms of data and statistics, meaning that the results of human exchange programs will be difficult to verify. In order to avoid a situation similar to the incident in which North Korean university students learned IT in America, and later used that technology to advance the North's draconian surveillance apparatus, the U.S. must build trust with the North Korean government. Full cooperation and incentives must also have conditions, such as increased access and ability to follow up on programs for evaluation.

These challenges are significant, but not insurmountable. One measure that could facilitate the process of human exchange is establishing a formal peace regime. If North Korea and the United States are not technically enemies, the two can start the process of forming a commercial relationship. Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cuba have shown that it is possible to develop relations with the United States despite a history of ideological confrontation. North Korea can also reap the benefits of human exchange by traveling down the road paved by its communist comrades.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.

Nate Kerkhoff is a former NKR intern. His work has appeared in a variety of publications and he is also a Young Scholar at the Pacific Forum

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