Geoffrey See on Training North Korea's Startups, Almost Dying Twice & Keeping The Faith - E5

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"When you have a personal mission in your life and you let it shine in a way that you live and breathe it, people are attracted to it. People see the dedication and the passion, and they want to help in many ways."​ - Geoffrey See

Geoffrey See is the founder and chairman of Choson Exchange. Over the past 12 years, he built the leading grassroots-led organization driving economic change in North Korea. He has trained over 2000 North Koreans in entrepreneurship, economic policy and law. He has also distributed teaching materials to over 10,000 North Koreans. His work has introduced a generation of North Koreans to international practices. He has also contributed to enterprise reform, the establishment of special economic zones, and the reforming of legal property rights. Geoffrey also advises the South Korean government on the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint manufacturing zone, collaboratively built and manage by North and South Korea.

His work has been written up as a Harvard Business School case study, which he helps teach to Harvard MBAs in the Global Capitalism class by Professor Sophus Reinert. He has survived two near-death experiences in his work in North Korea.

Geoffrey is a Kauffman Fellow in venture capital. He is also passionate about technologies for financial inclusion and data. He co-founded CirCO, the leading co-working space business in Vietnam. He also helped establish HGX, a securities exchange in Singapore built on blockchain technology. Most recently he is at Trusting Social, providing identity solutions for the unbanked in emerging markets, through AI and facial recognition technologies. He also worked as a management consultant at Bain & Co. in Boston on big data retail and private equity.

Geoffrey graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Economics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He also did and completed a Master of Arts in East Asian studies at Yale University. He was also an exchange student at Tsinghua University. On the side, he enjoys current affairs, running and traveling. You can follow him on Twitter @Geoffrey_See.

This episode is produced by Adriel Yong.

[00:02:36] Jeremy Au: Hi Geoffrey. It's good to catch up with you.

[00:02:41] Geoffrey See: Hi, Jeremy. Thanks for having me here.

[00:02:43] Jeremy Au: I've always been so impressed by your work and track record globally on issues that people can only barely understand. So many people just tell me how about how much they admire you for your courage and leadership.

[00:03:00] Geoffrey See: Yeah. I hope they admire me also for the bad decision making that put me on this path. (laughter)

[00:03:04] Jeremy Au: How about we start by telling us about your leadership journey?

[00:03:11]Geoffrey See: When I think of leadership, it's tied very much to the work I did setting up Choson Exchange, a grassroots-led organization where we bring people from all around the world to North Korea to run training programs on economic policy, entrepreneurship and the rule of law.

[00:03:27] On top of that, we also play a role advising the other capitals, that are very much involved in this issue, on engagement with this country and its people.

[00:03:36] When I think about what the leadership journey means to me , it's about the willingness to believe in this different future for the Korean peninsula and for North Korea especially, regardless of the number of obstacles in the way and the sacrifices required to allow us to get to this better future.

[00:03:54] How does this future look like? For me, it's when the North Korean people fulfil their full entrepreneurial potential, that the country can open up, be integrated into the world economically, socially, and politically, and that we have a truly lasting peace on the Korean peninsula. That's the vision.

[00:04:12] Obviously, there's so many things that have to happen for us to get there. The leadership element comes in from the willingness to stay on this path and to continuously push ahead, regardless of all the challenges.

[00:04:23] For me, I came onto this journey almost by accident. I like to think of it as a series of bad decisions, starting from a trip to the country in 2007 and just being absolutely fascinated and blown away by the fact that there were young North Korean students, fresh graduates and university students who were starting to see the change in Chinese tourists coming from across the border.

[00:04:49] For them, China used to be a very poor country, and now they're seeing all these Chinese tourists with fancy cameras, new fashion, clearly prospering. For a lot of North Koreans, that sparked this thought on the realization that the world is changing and they themselves have to change with it.

[00:05:05] And the path to success was true entrepreneurship, through engaging with businesses, versus what, it looked like 20, 30 years ago in the country. That's how I stumbled onto this issue and made it a passion for myself.

[00:05:24] Jeremy Au: Why is leadership so important for you?

[00:05:24] Geoffrey See: I feel this is the issue that more people should care about.

[00:05:26] We're stuck for so long in this suspended state of war. Both Koreas and the U.S are technically still at war, even though they signed an armistice more than five decades ago. Many of the parties involved in this on the border, like China, Russia, the U.S, North Korea, all have nuclear weapons. You have neighboring important countries like Japan and South Korea, that if they wanted to, could go nuclear fairly quickly.

[00:05:51] This is the issue that potentially, if it turns into a conflict, could become very severe devastation for countries around the region and potentially around the world.

[00:06:00] At the same time, there's a social element to this. There's a quarter of South Korean population, whose families still lives in North Korea, whom they have not seen for many decades. You have a country that's still suffering the scars of a civil conflict. It's a very very important issue, both at a personal level, for the 75 million people who live in the Korean peninsula, but also for the rest of the world.

[00:06:22] The important thing for me is that even though it's an issue that at many times looks intractable, it is still something that more people should work towards a much more ideal end state rather than the frozen conflict that we have at this point in time, and which have existed for, frankly speaking, the last five decades.

[00:06:41] Jeremy Au: How did you get started in your journey? Talk us through it.

[00:06:46] Geoffrey See: My first exposure to the Korean issue came in 2005. I went to South Korea for an APEC conference. While I was there, I met people from divided families. South Koreans who had family in the North and I also met North Koreans who had fled the North and are now living in the South.

[00:07:01] I got very interested in it, read up everything I could about the topic. It's hard to believe it now. At that time, it was just really five books that you could read, and you would say, I've read everything there was to be read about North Korea. That was my initial exposure.

[00:07:14] In 2007, I was interning in Beijing and I had some time on my hands. I decided that having done all the research, having interacted with the issue, I wanted to see what North Korea is like. That was how I ended up visiting Pyongyang as a tourist.

[00:07:27] I told you about the younger North Koreans I've met who were very interested in entrepreneurship, in business and economics, and were finding it very, very hard to get access to any information on this issue. I decided that, "Oh, when I leave, maybe I could send them a textbook or something like that."

[00:07:46] I thought it would be fairly simple. Turned out it was not easy at all. I spent two years trying to just find a way to get back into the country. I searched every news source, contacted any foreigner I know who's living in North Korea. I didn't make a lot of headway.

[00:08:00] The success came when they did foreign exchange reform in 2009. It didn't go very well for them. It was not a success at all. They started realizing that they needed to learn from the rest of the world. So that was how we first got ourselves started in there.

[00:08:16] The important thing to realize about this decision is that when you embark on a personal crusade, you don't commit yourself to the decision just once, you commit to it multiple times in your life because you have doubts, you have changes in your career path, and you have circumstances.

[00:08:32] The way it worked for me was that when I graduated during the depths of the global financial crisis, I made the decision to explore and see where this contact would go. I didn't at that time have a blueprint for Choson Exchange. But in that process of exploration, I was able to build a small initiative.

[00:08:51] I had an offer from Bain & Co. to go back to consulting. I delayed it for two and a half years to work on Choson Exchange and I went back to Bain and started my life as a consultant. While I was there in late 2012, I decided I would go back to visit North Korea, check in on our partners, see some of our programs and how it was doing.

[00:09:11] One thing that really stuck with me on that trip was: One of our partners was a young, fresh graduate from the university. We were having a meal together in a very new restaurant. She had never seen a fire detection device before, one of those smoke alarms that is on the ceiling. She turned to a security personnel who was in the room and she said to him, "Oh, is that a surveillance device?" She said it in Korean, but I could understand a little bit of Korean. I burst out laughing and the security guy looked at me and he also laughed. And he said, "Big Brother, Big Brother."

[00:09:42] But when I was leaving, I was at the airport and I was just reflecting back on that very emotional week. I just realized what was happening there with these people was a lot more real to me than what was happening as a consultant working in Boston into the late night. To think that her first thought when she saw something like this was to ask if it was a surveillance device, was to me just something that I felt needed to change.

[00:10:09] After I returned from that trip, I decided I would leave to focus on this issue. And Bain was, frankly speaking, actually very supportive.

[00:10:18] Jeremy Au: We were both at Bain and we both left to do our own things. You were mentioning about how there are so many smart people at Bain and how no one else can really do this issue in the meanwhile. Could you explain that a little bit?

[00:10:32] Geoffrey See: At Bain, there are so many intelligent people who would love to have that opportunity and can do the job probably better than I could. If I left, people would still be there and would be doing it. Where else my thought when it came to the North Korea issue and the work of Choson Exchange is that "If I didn't do it, it just wouldn't exist." I think that would be a great loss, both to myself personally, and to the communities that I affect.

[00:11:00] Jeremy Au: There must've been some difficulties along the way. What hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?

[00:11:06] Geoffrey See: Yeah. in the last 10 years I was working on this issue, I almost died twice.

[00:11:10] The first time, I was on a flight out from North Korea on a North Korean airline. I was sleeping on the flight and halfway through the flight, I just woke up and the entire flight was filled with smoke. It was a very bizarre experience because the North Koreans being North Koreans, everyone was just not telling us what was happening. And when we asked them, they respond, "Oh, no problem, no problem."

[00:11:31] You're looking around, you're seeing smoke, filling up the plane, coming from the vents, and you're thinking to yourself, you know, there is a problem here. The oxygen mask dropped; the plane started dropping. You could feel the pressure building in the ears, and I just thought I was going to die on this flight. I'm going to crash in North Korea, and this would be the end of Geoffrey See. That didn't happen thankfully, but it was one experience where it gave me a lot to think about.

[00:11:55] The other time was in 2014. Kim Jong Un had this very powerful uncle called Jang Song-thaek. He was executed by the North Koreans.

[00:12:03] Three weeks before the uncle's execution, our partner that we worked with in North Korea disappeared. Initially, we thought nothing had happened. We didn't hear from him. We're supposed to have a program, but it was canceled.

[00:12:14] Then the execution news came out. I started to wonder if these two issues were connected. I flew into North Korea about four weeks after the execution over Christmas and met with some of our other partners in the country and we asked them what happened to the guy we were working with. Everyone's very tight lipped. They didn't want to share a lot, but I walked away very much with the impression that there was some connection between this issue. over the next one year, I kept asking our partners, "Where is the person who worked with? Is he safe? How's he doing?"

[00:12:40] We eventually did meet him again. He told us that there was an investigation because in one of our programs, we had trained people linked to some of the factions that were close to the uncle. They were basically interrogating our partner as to whether he had a link to the recently deceased uncle, and by extension whether Choson Exchange had a link to the uncle, which we didn't have. Eventually, he said "No, there wasn't any link" and they seemed satisfied with the answer.

[00:13:09] We didn't get into any trouble, but I could just imagine a scenario where if he had said yes, I might be detained for quite a number of years now, which did happen to some other non-profits or church groups that were working in the country and supposedly had very close ties to the uncle.

[00:13:25] Jeremy Au: You're saying that your trip there was dangerous because you could have been vanished?

[00:13:29] Geoffrey See: Yeah, there was a missionary who worked in one of these economic zones in the north-eastern part of the country. He represents fairly large church groups. We were told that he was very close to the uncle. He had very close political relationships there. He was a Canadian citizen.

[00:13:44] About six months after the execution happened, he had gone back into the country and he ended up being detained there for three years before the Prime Minister of Canada managed to get him out of the country.

[00:13:57] Jeremy Au: Wow. You had some risk flying into the country, and you were totally unaware.

[00:14:03] Geoffrey See: The known unknowns, where you always know there is a risk of domestic politics, but you don't know exactly in what form it takes and how you're exposed to it. That's one thing we face daily when we work on North Korea, we always have to make judgment calls on the risk level, whether it's from internal parties in North Korea, or external parties elsewhere.

[00:14:26] There's no hard and fast rules, right? You cannot measure that risk. And so, you always have to do it on a gut instinct. How far do you want to push something or to what extent you are willing to absorb that risk? This is a very dynamic situation.

[00:14:38] There was one period where it was just very scary. We never had a lot of issues with the South Korean government, even under the conservative presidency. In 2016, as tensions on the Korean peninsula rose, the North Koreans were firing ICBMs at that time. They were doing nuclear testing. The South Koreans and Americans were taking a very hardline policy, ramping up sanctions, war exercises. That year, the South Korean government had some people in the intelligence services in one of the embassies overseas, and they were trying to break into my email, trying to break into my apartment. After the President was impeached, everything stopped, and everything went back to normal. People were very friendly on the South Korean side.

[00:15:20] Jeremy Au: Thank you for sharing. What are some common myths that you've encountered?

[00:15:25] Geoffrey See: The myth is this heroic story of how you've chosen your life mission, you go on, you reach this climax, you have success and that's the end of the story. But I think for reality, that's never the story right.

[00:15:37] I find it addictive. Myself and a lot of volunteers who work on it, work with me or the people who work in the North Korea field, because there's just such a mystique to North Korea. There's a mystery to it. I think someone once called North Korea " a puzzle wrapped in a fog". It's very much the fact that when we are down on the ground doing things, interacting with people, you feel you're peeling back an onion layer by layer and slowly getting to a crux of an issue and understanding what's happening there. It's a fascinating issue. It's actually just pure addiction.

[00:16:07] The biggest fear I have is just that potentially, 30 years from now, I'm like 60 years old, and nothing has changed on the Korean peninsula. I would just be heartbroken.

[00:16:17] This issue came to me in a very real manner. This guy I've met. Very smart guy, he was a high-flying Scottish lawyer in South Korea in the 90s and early 2000s. In 2006, shortly after the first inter-Korean summit, he decided that he wanted to play a role building up the legal sector in North Korea and eventually set up a law practice in the country. He moved to North Korea, spent about a decade living and working in the country, and obviously things kept getting harder. Sanctions keep ramping up, so he wasn't getting a lot of business.

[00:16:49] In 2018, he moved back to South Korea. This was a very high period for everyone in the field, right? We thought, "Oh, the Americans, the North Koreans, they are making up. That's progress." He thought, "Oh, this is my chance to come back and help people finally go in there to do something." That breakthrough didn't materialize into something more substantial. He was heartbroken. He realized no one really cared about him. The world has moved on and he died of a heart attack last year.

[00:17:14] There's that fear in my heart that in 30 years from now, am I going to look like him? It's something that you need the stars to align in the political sphere in so many different countries to see a real breakthrough. That's a big risk that keeps me up at night.

[00:17:27] Jeremy Au: What support or resources are available for others considering a similar journey?

[00:17:33] Geoffrey See: What I feel very grateful for is that when you have a personal mission in your life, and you let it shine in a way that you live and breathe it, people are attracted to it. People see the dedication, they see the passion, and they want to help in many ways.

[00:17:49] Three figures have made a very big difference in my career, in my journey, and in providing encouragement.

[00:17:58] One is Professor Moon Chung-in. he is the Special Advisor to the South Korean President and architect of South Korea's Sunshine Policy, going back close to over a decade to one of the first liberal Presidents after the fall of the dictatorship in South Korea. He's been working on this issue for decades. He's dedicated his life to this issue and even though the breakthrough in relationships still remains elusive, he remains very, very dedicated to the issue. He's someone that I go to and I'm able to say, "Oh, I'm so frustrated, I don't know where this is going."

[00:18:32] He is always very encouraging, and I look up to him as a role model, as someone who has just given his life to this incredible mission.

[00:18:41] Another is George Yeo, who used to be the Foreign Minister of Singapore. I remember in 2017, in the craziness of all that nuclear testing, ICBMs, Donald Trump threatening fire and fury on North Korea, I went to visit my wife in the U.S and we went down to Houston and we met with George Yeo and his family. One thing he said to me that was just really important, was that "On these issues, it's people who have the dedication, who choose to believe in the alternative future and dedicate themselves to it, that make a difference in history, whether in small ways or big ways."

[00:19:16] Just hearing that from him and for him also taking such an interest in an issue that for many people is very peripheral, was just really important. He has continued to give help to us in different ways and give us advice and given us the long-term perspective on the issue. That's something that I was very grateful for and look up a lot to as someone who has a lot of empathy and a lot of passion for critical issues all around the world.

[00:19:42] Another person is Dominic Barton, who used to be the Global Managing Director for McKinsey. I met him in a conference in Switzerland. This was shortly after I first started Choson Exchange and we were very early in our work. I remember he was giving a talk about McKinsey, the management consulting firm, and how they solve all these incredible problems around the world, except that there were three problems that they do not touch. And the three problems were Myanmar, Iran and North Korea.

[00:20:12] So I raised my hand and I said, "I work on the North Korea issue. Why is it one of the issues that you just would not touch?" He just looked at me and said, "I lived in South Korea before. It's a critical issue. It's a very important issue. I want to talk to you right after this."

[00:20:26] So we went out to get lunch that year in Switzerland. I went back to the same conference next year, we had lunch again in Switzerland. He was just so fascinated by what I was doing. He was sharing with me his perspective, having lived in South Korea for five years and becoming a partner in South Korea and how he just believed this was one of those important issues that people had to be working on it.

[00:20:47] He's very interested in the changes that were happening inside the country at an economic level, and he linked me up with some people and actually helped us bring some North Koreans to attend the same conference in Switzerland many years later.

[00:20:59] Through the darkest periods of this journey, all three of them gave good support, resources, encouragement, in ways that have really kept me going and refreshed my outlook and my passion with this issue. These people care. They recognize the importance of the issue and they were willing to open up and say, "This is also how I can help you in terms of your mission because I believe in it."

[00:21:23] Jeremy Au: Amazing. So just a couple quick questions while I still have you. You say you love traveling, and you've gotten to travel in North Korea, a country that very few of us have ever even explored or thought about it. What are some beautiful sites that you saw in North Korea?

[00:21:42] Geoffrey See: For me, it's the people.

[00:21:43] Our stereotypes of North Koreans come from different lenses. We have the very highly militarized images of North Koreans You have Kim Jong Un, leader of the country, that's front and center of people's mind when they think of the country. You have refugees and the stories they have, hardships they endure to make their way out.

[00:22:04] But there's also the fact that 25 million peoples still live in that country. What I found interacting with them is that, as much as they are very much constrained by the politics and the system that they live in, people are very curious. They want to learn. They ask a lot of questions once they feel comfortable, with you and they can be generous in some ways. I remember bringing a group of North Koreans to Singapore once and they were very obsessed with going to take the Singapore Eye, the Ferris wheel we have by Marina Bay Sands, and I've never taken it.

[00:22:40] I was like, "Oh, it's expensive. I don't want to spend my money on it." and one of the North Korean lady who is not fantastically rich but she was just like, " I saw it on the way in from the airport down to the hostel and I just have to get on it. But you're coming with us, you're bringing us there, and if you're not getting on it, I'm not going to get on it."

[00:22:56] So she actually bought the ticket for me and it was not a cheap ticket, especially for a North Korean. It was just really, really touching to me. That's the experience we get in the country with actually quite a lot of people. As much as they lack the cultural awareness and the ability to interact easily with foreign people, they are humans and they care, and they do really appreciate what we bring to the country.

[00:23:19] Going back to how I think about this issue is that if I was not doing it, no one else would be doing it. I feel like it's a huge pity if these people do not get that interaction and experience simply because I'm not able or not willing to do this thing.

[00:23:35] Jeremy Au: What would you say is your favorite North Korean dish that you've gotten to sample?

[00:23:41] Geoffrey See: Cuisine in North Korea is actually really good. Obviously, it's Pyongyang and the experience is different in different parts of the country. Even in South Korea today, a lot of the restaurants are named after North Korean provinces, just because they do serve up pretty delicious fare.

[00:23:55] I would say my favorite is actually Bibimbap. It's a mixed rice dish and it's actually very different how they do it in North Korea. They do this kind of dish in a stone bowl, so the rice is a little bit crispy at the bottom and when you just mix it up, it's just fantastic. Especially with the North Korean winters, eating one of those warm rice bowls is just a fabulous experience.

[00:24:17] Jeremy Au: If you could go back 10 years in time, what advice would you give to your younger self?

[00:24:25] Geoffrey See: Wow. That's a challenging one, right? There is this external story where we tell, and it looks like success. People believe that what you've done is great. But I think there's always a lot of self-doubt in that journey.

[00:24:37] For me, I can't say that there was any particular year that went so smoothly, and I said, "Wow, this is such a great year. I've never doubted why I was on this path working on this issue." Every year, there's always a problem, right? Nuke tests, sanctions, North Koreans being difficult.

[00:24:55] The biggest hurdle I face is this question of keeping faith in the work that I'm doing. Every year, I've always asked myself like, "Is it worth doing it? Could I be on a more comfortable path doing Bain, doing whatever comes after management consulting that most of my peers go to."

[00:25:12] I wish I'd made decisions to diversify some of my risks more. It's a marathon. The issue has not been solved. We have not reached a resolution. It could be 20 more years before we see a breakthrough in U.S-North Korea relations. Just because you have made a decision once doesn't mean that it's a decision that stays with you your whole life. Even though I'm so much defined by the issue and I'm so associated with it, it is important that I am able to stay in the game and keep myself sane, be well-fed and still live a fairly comfortable life.

[00:25:45] I would say in hindsight, I don't regret it. I also have to believe that it's worth trying and keeping at it. The idea that there is a long-term mission, change will happen someday and that I need to keep believing in that. We've not seen that real resolution yet, but it's the realization that this is a long journey. I've moved away from the issue and at various times I've moved back into the issue. It ramps up at some times and ramps down at other times. But I always try to keep some stake in the issue, and some level of involvement in it.

[00:26:15] Jeremy Au: That's amazing. Thank you so much, Geoffrey. It's been a pleasure just chatting with you.

[00:26:20] Geoffrey See: It was great to be able to share my story. It's one of those things where sharing the experience for me is also a lot of introspection and a huge reminder of why I got into this in the first place. Thank you so much for having me here.

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