Via Interview Blog:
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Mr. Eloesser, you recently became the President of Nosotek Joint Venture Company in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. In which the field of business is Nosotek operating?
Volker Eloesser: We do general IT outsourcing. This includes data base applications, 3D technology development as well a games production. Nosotek’s customers come from all over the world and some of our products are even used in the US.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: According to your CV, before you were heading to North Korea, you’ve been the general manager of Elocom, a subsidiary of a German Joint Venture between News Corporation (NWS.A) and Verisign (VRSN). It’s quite unusual for a high-ranking manager of a US based public company to move to North Korea.
Volker Eloesser: That’s true. But I don’t see my job as a political mission. At Elocom, I was managing a company producing mobile phone software technology. Neither my old job nor my new one is a political one.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: What’s your opinion about the demolition of the nuclear cooling tower in Yongbyon and the announcement of the US President George W. Bush to remove the country from the terrorism blacklist?
Volker Eloesser: This was great news. I think that both parties, the Korean and US government, took wise decisions which hopefully help giving peace a chance through diplomacy. For our business, lifting the sanctions will have a very positive impact, as well as for the People in the DPRK. North Korean Companies, domestic and foreign-invested, were suffering a lot under the sanctions. Foreign trade was very difficult and many potential customers feared to get trouble when making business with the DPRK.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: When did you first get interested into the DPRK? Did you already do active business with North Koreans before?
Volker Eloesser: Of course I did. In the beginning of 2005, I held lectures at the Pyongyang Business School. The Korean participants of my lectures were great people really interested into international business.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Who are the shareholders of Nosotek? Is it a state-run company?
Volker Eloesser: Nosotek is a joint-venture between a European owned private holding company and the General Federation of Science and Technology of DPRK, a non-government organization.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Along being the president of Nosotek, you are Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Next Generation Entertainment N.V. (NGE), a Dutch public company. Are there any links between NGE and North Korea?
Volker Eloesser: NGE’s management is highly interested in investing into the DPRK software industry. The CEO Dr. Stefan Heinemann believes that the DPRK will become a very important sourcing market in the near future, which has many advantages over China and India. Having this in mind, it makes a lot of sense for NGE to have a board member with experience in dealing with North Koreans.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: How would you describe the difference of outsourcing software in the DPRK compared to China or India?
Volker Eloesser: The DPRK’s software industry is already very well developed, but only for the demands of the domestic market. Although the skill level of the engineers is as high as the skill level in China or India, most DPRK software companies never made successful international business in large scale. The Korean engineers usually have no experience with western culture, habits and taste. But of course you’ll experience the same, when working with some small Indian or Chinese companies. One major advantage of the Korean engineers is that they don’t move to a new job frequently, like the Chinese. In this matter, you can compare the Koreans with Japanese staff, who usually never leave the company to move to another job. The result is obvious: the experience and knowledge stays within the company and there is no risk of IP leak.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Are you personally living in North Korea or can you do your job remotely?
Volker Eloesser: It’s definitely required to have western management in a company dealing with western customers. Every attempt of people trying to do this remotely has failed. I’m planning to live in Pyongyang most of the year. I have a nice apartment in the city centre.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Living in Pyongyang sounds hard. How are the living conditions for foreigners in Pyongyang? What about your family?
Volker Eloesser: Well, it’s not as hard as western readers may think. Of course the hardest thing is to live separated from my wife, but she promised to visit me frequently. Generally, the living conditions for westerners in Pyongyang are good: The air is totally clean, there is no risk of becoming a crime victim, there is a lot of green in the city and the Korean people are generally very friendly .
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Usually, western media has almost no idea about the real working and living conditions of the people in North Korea. Can you tell us something about the working conditions of your local staff?
Volker Eloesser: One of my goals is to achieve working conditions according to German standard. The staff is equipped with the latest computer hardware and enjoys a lot of incentives from the company to make their live comfortable. For example, the company is providing free lunch for the whole staff, which is delicious and nutritious. I myself have lunch together with my engineers every day, and I like it very much. Additionally to the large number of public holidays, the company even sponsors a one-week holiday trip. This is the way we appreciate the performance on the job.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: What are the most difficult obstacles, western managers are facing in the DPRK? Do you stuffer from political pressure?
Volker Eloesser: I’ve not yet experienced any political pressure, but of course you need to get used to the local security regulations and bureaucracy. When you behave politely, don’t do derogative statements about politics and respect the Korean culture, you won’t face any serious problems. The most difficult obstacle is the absence of international experience of the software engineers, combined with the cultural differences typical to Asian countries.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: How many European businesspeople like you have discovered the DPRK as tomorrow’s sourcing market?
Volker Eloesser: Actually, not many so far. The European community in Pyongyang is very small. After a few weeks, you know every foreigner. Most Europeans who do business in the DPRK are organized in the European Business Association. But I feel that the community is growing since business managers are more and more recognising that doing business in and with the DPRK is of course working with a frontier framework but also with a great potential of highly-skilled people with an impressive work ethic and an attractive cost-performance ratio – and also an emerging domestic market.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: What drives you personally to go there and build up an internationally operating company?
Volker Eloesser: Leading a foreign invested company in North Korea is a great challenge for me. During my lectures at the Pyongyang Business School, I realized that the skilled North Korean IT engineers have a huge potential for successful software development. This potential is almost unrecognized in the world and therefore unused. I like to be the pioneer who builds up this new outsourcing destination. I believe that economic progress will lead to a general improvement of the people’s living conditions and IT business is a key to economic progress. If you ask me, I would tell you that my work will have a greater impact on improving the North Korean living conditions then just sending bags of rice.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Do you experience economic progress or political changes in North Korea?
Volker Eloesser: The question about political changes should better be answered by the politicians. But indeed you can see economic progress: Compared to my first visit in 2005, there are now much more cars in the street and the number of foreign investment seem to have significantly grown. A group from Hong Kong is building a large shopping and business area along the Taedonggang river and Orascom from Egypt is continuing the Ryugyong Hotel construction as well as investing into a modern mobile phone network. And recently the German-based Prettl Group (Automotive industry) announced that it will be the first foreign non-Korean company to build a factory in Kaesong.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Nosotek is located in Pyongyang. Do you think things could be easier for companies operating out of the Kaesong free trade zone?
Volker Eloesser: I’ve never been in Kaesong myself. From what I’ve heard, the free trade zone, which has been build with ROK investment, is a modern factory area, mostly targeted to low-cost production of shoes or textile. I don’t know of any software development in Kaesong. Pyongyang, being the economic and cultural centre of the DPRK with large universities, offers a huge number of qualified engineers.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: What are your plans for Nosotek’s future? How do you see your company in five years? What is your strategy?
Volker Eloesser: My plan for Nosotek is a constant growth. First of course, everybody in Nosotek has to understand the demands of our customers; not only the technical demands but also the usual communication style and habits of the western world. At the moment, we’re only fifty people and I’m starting to build up a powerful middle management, who knows their customer’s expectations. After this has been done, we can begin scaling the business volume.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Are there other western IT companies having operations in the DPRK?
Volker Eloesser: Nosotek still is the only one. But according to Paul Tjia of GPI Consultancy who organizes business missions to the DPRK, the number of people interested into software development in the DPRK is constantly growing. I hope that Paul will bring more people here to operate software companies. With other Foreigners here, working in the same or similar field of business we together can help strengthening the DPRK to become a better known source for software development. Bangalore is still far, but I’m sure the quality delivered by the Korean IT engineers will be convincing, not only to grow Nosotek, but also to grow the country itself as an outsourcing destination.
Klaus-Martin Meyer: Mr. Eloesser, thank you for the interview.