In the early 1990s, Katharina Zellweger was working at Caritas Hong Kong, a job she’d held since 1978. She took time away from Caritas to attend SIT’s International Administration program. After completing her master’s degree, Zellweger returned to her work involving Hong Kong’s Vietnamese refugees, projects in China, and later in North Korea. From 2006 to 2011, she was Pyongyang Country Director for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation — part of the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs — focusing on sustainable agriculture, income generation to improve people’s livelihoods, and capacity development to contribute to individual and institutional learning.
After two years as a fellow at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, Zellweger became director of KorAid Limited, based in Hong Kong. She is also a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and a member of the Charity Coordinating Committee of Kadoorie Charitable Trust in Hong Kong.
How did you end up working with North Korea?
I met the first North Korean at a UN meeting in Beijing in 1993 and he invited me to visit his country and see if we could perhaps work there. This I did in 1994, and when the famine in 1995 started, the Caritas aid program got into full swing.
How has your experience with SIT affected your work?
SIT helped me to sort out many questions I had in terms of working in or with other cultures, and it was also positive to get to know the experiences of other SIT students. We all had working experience in many different countries – almost all of us were older students.
In what ways are prevailing ideas about North Korea incorrect?
If one says “North Korea,” most everybody thinks of the country’s nuclear weapons program, the Singapore Summit between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and starving children. Forgotten are the 24 million ordinary individuals who happen to have been born there, and who are struggling day by day to get by.
… Forgotten are the 24 million ordinary individuals who happen to have been born there, and who are struggling day by day to get by.”
What are most people’s daily lives like?
Life for the ordinary citizen away from the capital and other big cities is tough and a struggle to make ends meet. That means hard work on cooperative farms, in factories and construction sites, to name a few occupations. Men usually have a fixed job that, in addition to a small salary, also provides free or almost free housing and other fringe benefits. Women often run small businesses, selling goods or running restaurants.
Is there a particular story you recall that reflects the state of mind of North Koreans?
In Pyongyang, I was once stopped in the middle of the road. That I was sometimes driving myself was also something of a surprise for many North Koreans. A gentleman jumped out of his car and thanked me profoundly, but I wasn’t sure for what. I could not quite recognize him, but later I realized he was working for the UN. Well, he told me that his wife was now successfully running a restaurant, thanks to the Pyongyang Business School she had attended — a project that we, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, had been running for a few years — and would I please come to her restaurant and test it out?
What are the most striking changes you’ve seen in North Korea?
Traffic has increased, but it is, of course, not Beijing or Bangkok. On Sundays, special permission is needed to be allowed to drive because of the petrol shortage, and that means the roads are almost empty. By now, six or seven taxi services in Pyongyang are competing with each other, something unthinkable when I went there in the ‘90s. There is also a lot of construction work, especially in Pyongyang, and that means more big buildings. Many huge monuments can be visited by tourists, too. The local people nowadays dress more colorfully, no longer just dark blue, white blouses or shirts, and uniforms in olive green and brown. High heels are trendy. Many homes have solar panels, a big help, as the electricity supply is still problematic.
It’s particularly interesting that until a few years ago Russian was the first foreign language children would learn, but it has been changed to English. So sometimes youngsters approach you to test their first English.
It’s particularly interesting that until a few years ago Russian was the first foreign language children would learn, but it has been changed to English.”
I am often asked if North Korea has changed in the past 20 years, and the answer to this question is both yes and no, but it is certainly no longer the same country I experienced in 1995. Some years ago, I created the term “the Five Ms,” and these Ms are still quite valid today. They include the fact that markets and money are playing a much bigger role in the daily lives of ordinary people; mobile phones have become a common form of communication; motor cars have increased; and, lastly, in Pyongyang, there is a developing middle class.
What do I mean by a middle class? Youngsters show off their latest mobile phones; people take taxis to work or to go out in the evening; couples are eating in expensive restaurants where food bills are paid with stacks of euro or US dollar notes; girls wear fine gold chains and finger rings; and men smoke expensive imported cigarettes – to name just a few visible signs.
Today, another M can be added. This M is for mindsets: Citizens’ mindsets are changing too, particularly among the younger generation in Pyongyang. These are young adults who grew up in a time when the regime stopped providing everything, including food, clothing, and many daily necessities. Thus, they are not used to receiving government handouts, but finding their own ways to make ends meet. They have therefore developed a certain entrepreneurial spirit.
These are young adults who grew up in a time when the regime stopped providing everything, including food, clothing, and many daily necessities. Thus, they are not used to receiving government handouts, but finding their own ways to make ends meet. They have therefore developed a certain entrepreneurial spirit.”
What do you think is the likely trajectory for North Korea’s interaction with the rest of the world?
It is important that the US and other countries lay groundwork for Kim Jong Un to feel safe about change. Otherwise the North Korean regime will never give up nuclear weapons. Only if the leadership is certain that they can prosper and develop without them will the denuclearization process move forward.
What does North Korea most need from the rest of the world?
In terms of humanitarian aid: programs dealing with nutrition, food security, health and water and sanitation. But also, capacity development programs in many different sectors are needed and very important. More people-to-people contacts and engagement at many other levels are equally important if we want to address issues in a constructive and peaceful way.
Does North Korea pose a realistic threat, or is that threat propaganda?
North Korea needs to be taken seriously at all levels.