Being in North Korea

Being in North Korea

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In 2010, while working on a PhD in South Korea, Andray Abrahamian visited the other Korea, a country he had studied for years but never seen. He returned determined to find a way to work closely with North Koreans. Ten years and more than thirty visits later, Being in North Korea tells the story of his experiences helping set up and run Choson Exchange, a non-profit that teaches North Koreans about entrepreneurship and economic policy.

Abrahamian was provided a unique vantage into life in North Korea that belies stereotypes rampant in the media, revealing instead North Koreans as individuals ranging from true believers in the system to cynics wishing the Stalinist experiment would just end; from introverts to bubbly chatterboxes, optimists to pessimists. He sees a North Korea that is changing, invalidating some assumptions held in the West, but perhaps reinforcing others.

Amid his stories of coping with the North Korean system, of the foreigners who frequent Pyongyang, and of everyday relationships, Abrahamian explores the challenges of teaching the inherently political subject of economics in a system where everyone must self-regulate their own minds; he looks at the role of women in the North Korean economy, and their exclusion from leadership; and he discusses how information is restricted, propaganda is distributed and internalized, and even how Pyongyang’s nominally illicit property market functions. Along with these stories, he interweaves the historical events that have led to today’s North Korea.

Drawing on the breadth of the author’s in-country experience, Being in North Korea combines the intellectual rigor of a scholar with a writing style that will appeal to a general audience. Through the personal elements of a memoir that provide insights into North Korean society, readers will come away with a more realistic picture of the country and its people, and a better idea of what the future may hold for the nation.

This book is part of APARC's in-house series with the Brookings Institution Press.

About the Author

Andray Abrahamian is a non-resident fellow at the Korea Economic Institute, a visiting scholar at George Mason University Korea, and a senior adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum. During the 2018-19 academic year, he was the Koret Fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Andray was heavily involved in Choson Exchange, a nonprofit organization that trains North Koreans in economic policy and entrepreneurship, where he previously served as executive director and research director. That work, along with sporting exchanges and a TB project, has taken him to the DPRK over 30 times. He has also lived in Myanmar, where he taught at Yangon University and consulted for a risk management company. His research comparing the two countries resulted in the publication of North Korea and Myanmar: Divergent Paths (McFarland, 2018). His expert commentary on Korea and Myanmar has appeared in numerous outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Reuters. 

Andray holds a PhD in international relations from the University of Ulsan, South Korea, and an MA from the University of Sussex, where he studied media discourse on North Korea and the U.S.-ROK alliance. He speaks Korean, sometimes with a Pyongyang accent.