Ulrich Kelber interview on recent trip to DPRK

The interview (in German) can be found here. A reader, however, sent in an English version:

Klaus-Martin Meyer: Mr. Kelber, you were recently in North Korea for the first time. Was this trip in what is certainly a totally different world consistent with your expectations?

Ulrich Kelber: Though I prepared myself with both oral and written accounts, there were things, both positive and negative, that surprised me. Among the negative things were the uniformity and control; among the positive were how well educated the people are, and their effort to bring the country forward.

Klaus-Martin Meyer: The political climate of the Korean peninsula is currently more tense than ever. The North Koreans described their version of the fall of Cheonan. How realistic is it?

Ulrich Kelber: I’m not an expert on these sorts of questions, which prevents a very detailed assessment. North Korea’s November threats of retribution alone aroused suspicions. But, in fact, South Korea has to allow questions. Why can’t an independent commission examine the evidence? Why aren’t the survivors permitted to testify publicly?

Klaus-Martin Meyer: In Pyongyang you also visited a German joint venture with the company Nosotek. As a member of the Bundestag, what are your impressions of the working conditions and day-to-day work of software developers in this sector of the North Korean economy? Are you convinced that Nosotek is actually developing for the international market?

Ulrich Kelber: Yes, we saw typical products for the international market, which, as a computer scientist, greatly interested me. The programmers and graphic designers are obviously very highly trained, with technical equipment up to Western standards. One significant exception to this is the lack of internet access in the company itself. Of course, this makes business and customer support more difficult, but isn’t an obstacle for actual software development.

The working conditions were the same as I have seen at German start-ups or in developing countries. No one could comment on the wages, which is also the customary rule in Germany. However, I had the feeling that the employees were part of the middle class, to whatever extent it exists in North Korea.

Klaus-Martin Meyer: How do you rate the opportunities and risks for foreign entrepreneurs in North Korea?

Ulrich Kelber: That’s hard to say after a single visit, but at Nosotek there seems to be little standing in the way of economic success. Possible risks would be the regime further shutting the country off, or wider-reaching sanctions. The well-trained employees, which I also can affirm in other areas such as the trades and agriculture, represent a great opportunity for all businesses.

Klaus-Martin Meyer: As usual in closing, our standard question (not just in interviews about communist countries.) Where do you see North Korea being in five years?

Ulrich Kelber: If the regime doesn’t open up economically, the country will barely progress, in spite of any efforts, for example, to maintain their infrastructure. Even with a little more openness, North Korea could make enormous economic gains, since both infrastructure and well-trained workers are available. The possibility of a political thaw depends both on the ability of the North Korean regime to resolve the succession issue, as well as whether or not South Korea’s hardliners keep calling the shots.

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