Becoming an entrepreneur in North Korea? Illegal, but still desirable

North Korea is one of the world’s most rigid centrally planned economies. How do people envision becoming entrepreneurs in such a context? And can entrepreneurship be a springboard for bringing change into the current institutional order?

I want to be my own boss and achieve my own goals. … I know there will be many challenges and risks, but I’m sure that I can succeed.” -A North Korean university student

North Korea has been considered the world’s most rigid centrally planned economy. Entrepreneurship is extremely constrained in the country as every economic activity needs to be in line with the interests of the State. In addition, individuals are not allowed to have any private property or means of production, making private entrepreneurial activities illegal with high risks of serious legal punishments.

However, despite the strong regulations, unofficial grey markets still exist where people can trade. Quasi-state-owned enterprises are also becoming more common due to corruption and weak enforcement of regulations. How do people envision becoming an entrepreneur in such a context? In the midst of conflicting norms and regulations, what kind of entrepreneurial engagement is considered desirable and appropriate?

Types of prospective entrepreneurial engagement

Our most recent study addressed these questions by examining the prospective entrepreneurial narratives of North Korean university students. Prospective narratives are narratives about the future self in a world that might come to be. One of the authors volunteered as a business course teacher at the North Korean university over six two-month periods in 2012-2017. He collected handwritten essays in which students were asked to imagine themselves becoming an entrepreneur and developing their own business in the near future.

Four types of prospective entrepreneurial engagement emerged from our analysis: 1) economic patriotism, 2) industrious collectivism, 3) individualistic heroism, and 4) personal dreamwork. These types differ based on the orientation of personal motivation (self-interest vs. collective interest) and goals (social vs. market recognition), as well as how it aligns with (or deviates from) the dominant institutional discourse in North Korea.

With economic patriotism, entrepreneurial engagement is done through cooperation with exclusive group members to serve national interests. Meanwhile, industrious collectivism has the goal of helping society through innovative products or services and so gain market advantage. The remaining two types are more oriented towards the self, which contradicts the socialist ideology strongly upheld in North Korea. While individualistic heroism works towards gaining a reputation as an exceptional person in the country, personal dreamwork seeks to pursue personal dreams and gain autonomy.

Springboard for action and change?

The findings suggest that, despite the extreme constraints and uncertainty around entrepreneurship, North Korean university students were still able to identify opportunities for entrepreneurial engagement. The narratives also reflect degrees of agency for resisting severe institutional pressures, especially in narratives of personal dreamwork where the entrepreneur would have to go against the state’s directives to pursue their own personal interests. 

But can entrepreneurship be a springboard for bringing change into the current institutional order in North Korea? As the prospective entrepreneurial engagements identified are more focused on creating markets, we suggest that any changes will most likely be limited to the (unofficial) market economy. Still, even though further research is needed to examine how these narratives will unfold over time, it shows the potential of entrepreneurship as means for institutional resistance, even in an imaginary fashion.

In Researcher Blogs KAUTE’s grant recipients tell about their research and viewpoints in their own words.

Bernadetta A. Ginting-Szczesny is a Doctoral Researcher in Entrepreneurship at Aalto University, School of Business. Her research is focused on the socio-psychological dimensions of entrepreneurship and the transformative potential of entrepreneurship for individuals in constrained contexts.

Twitter: @bernaloy