Money on my mind: Visiting North Korea’s Special Economic Zone

Eyes are on Singapore as President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un prepare to hold a historic meeting on June 12. It’s anticipated that discussions between the two leaders will touch on nuclear disarmament and peace on the Korean Peninsula. Trump wants the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear weapons but the way forward may be economically charged. It could be wishful thinking but many are hoping for real, lasting change…

A visit to North Korea’s Special Economic Zone

If money could talk, the coins and currencies in North Korea’s Special Economic Zones would testify to the potential for change in the world’s most reclusive nation.

Last year, I visited the northernmost province of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), where I was exposed to commune farms and hillside livelihoods close to the border of China. People warned it would be like stepping into a time machine. And in some ways, it was like I had stepped out of the busyness of the metropolis world I knew, into rural 1960s Korea.

IMG_0047On the last day, we crossed into Rajin Sombong (Rason), a Special Economic Zone in the DPRK and the change was immediately visible.

Dirt roads gave way to stretches of concrete paths and locals wore fancier coats than their comrades in other parts of the country. Its roadside buildings were taller and wider, and wait, did I just see a taxi?

Competing taxi companies are big business in Rason, which also explains the few petrol stations we saw across the Special Economic Zone. We weaved past factories, not empty after the United Nations economic sanctions, and noticed the Emperor Casino, valued at $64 million, catering to affluent Chinese tourists.

The difference in living standards between Rason and its neighbouring provinces was profound but it sparked a degree of hope and curiosity during my visit. Foreign investment may just be the vehicle for change in a country ravaged by the worst drought in 16 years, and burdened by a struggling population.

“Welcome to this special economic zone, It’s a lot more free-er here” said our tour guide.

What’s so ‘special’ about Special Economic Zones?

Development in NKA Special Economic Zone (SEZ) has ‘special’ rules, concessions and benefits for trade. Foreign-owned companies can set up shop in these zones, along with any production facilities that can help it attract the foreign investment it needs.

DPRK’s leader Kim Jong-un began experimenting with a dozen SEZs in 2013 to foster economic development. The area of Rason, short for Rajin-Sonbong, was the first type of Special Economic Zone to be set up in 1991.

The Special Economic Zone is similar to China back in the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping began experimenting with foreign investment before opening the country up to the world. Unlike its Chinese brethren, SEZs in North Korea has largely been a means of containing foreign investment from the rest of the country.

Associate Professor in International Relations and Comparative Politics, Justin Hastings says SEZs benefit locals by enabling a means of income, taking home what’s left after the government’s cut of the pie.

Streets of North Korea“Locals can see how enterprises work and have the chance to interact with non-North Koreans. Although the government tries to minimise that as much as possible, a couple of locals are benefiting and you can argue that it’s better than nothing,” he said.

“We tend to think of North Korea as isolated, but the country can be fairly encouraging of foreign business because they want your money and investment. Informally, North Koreans want to develop – they want to learn how to play the market and build companies that will function. Foreign investment is a learning process to do that,” said Prof. Hastings.

According to Prof. Hastings, the best case scenario from SEZs is to see the spread of foreign investment across the country, in hopes it will lead to internal development.

Despite his hopes that foreign investment will help the local population, Prof. Hastings says realistically, foreign investment alone is unlikely to cause a major sea change.

As Kim Jong-un continues to pivot and prioritise economic development, tomorrow’s meeting with President Trump will either propel North Korea’s economic development or add to the existing pressure from UN sanctions. One can only hope.

*Read more about my trip to North Korea last April or view more travel stories here.

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asian-australian identity

Does my surname sound too Asian?

It all started with Dad. At some point during high school, as my primary guardian, he began signing my school papers with ‘Young’ instead of ‘Yang’.My dad was always a joker and in the nonchalant manner in which he spoke about the name change, it seemed almost like a normal thing to do.  I didn’t concern myself much with the difference between his last name and mine – until the anomaly became a permanent alteration.

At the dining table one evening, my dad informed the family he had legally changed his last name to ‘Young’.  My grandmother also lived with us at the time but instead of responding with confusion, she only laughed when my dad mocked the surname ‘Yang’.

w_ dadHe explained his new name made him sound ‘less Asian’ — especially when paired with his white-sounding first name, Earl. Dad had moved to Australia from Korea at a time when being Asian was more of condition than a cultural inheritance. As a labourer, he spent his early working years representing a coloured minority and to this day, he enjoys every opportunity to accentuate his Aussie accent.

Dad speaks English as well as the next white Australian and he’s competent at a variety of skilled and strategic jobs. So why not shift a few letters in his surname and be seen as equals — he thought — at least on paper? It was a radical, but ingenious move. And one that he encouraged me to consider “for the sake of my future” once I turned 18.

Attempting to bypass career stereotypes with my fake surname

My surname only started to become a practical hindrance in my early university years, when job applications and career decisions came to play. With each resume and cover letter I crafted, I became more acutely aware of my ‘Asianness’ and through an innocent shifting of two little letters, I attempted to erase the striking orientality from my name.

At university, I yearned to become a journalist, but the number of Asian names in the roles I coveted were few and far between. There was a plethora of Asians who were bankers, accountants or lawyers but in areas of public life, it seemed Asian names didn’t get a chance to shine.

A name is like a map, a blueprint to where we’re headed and who we’re meant to be in this world.

professional identity as an asian australian

A change in my Gmail setting was all it took to rid of my Asian last name and the career stereotypes that accompanied it. Like Dad, I was curious to see how far a last name like ‘Young’ could take me but before I knew it, I’d submitted more than a dozen job application with my partly-fake last name.

As I applied for writing internships at newspapers and different marketing departments, my adjusted surname gave me the reassurance that I had an equal chance at a role and least an unsuccessful application had nothing to do with my ethnicity.

I wanted to relieve the burden of superseding the stereotypes that came with the visible ‘Asianess’ on my CV. I double, triple, quadruple checked each sentence because, with a last name like ‘Yang’, I assumed even an iota of error was unforgivable. The simple act of signing off as ‘Shona Young’ meant I no longer felt the need to prove myself with flawlessly crafted emails and exceptional English. This is what being white must feel like, I thought. With two or more emails signed off as ‘Shona Young’, I began to grow accustomed to the effect my Anglo pen-name had on my shy Korean self.

Job hunts as an Asian AustralianI hung on to my ‘fake’ surname until the end of university, when I came clean the moment I landed my first part-time job in the marketing department of a small technology company. They didn’t seem to notice the inconsistency of my surname on my email signature and my financial documents. The official paperwork was completed and from payslips to business cards and company email addresses, once again my real name was on full display.

Only this time around, I had an opportunity to build it up with my own hard work. Each blog post I’d written for the company was penned with ‘Shona Yang’ and my every milestone was congratulated. I may not be able to change my ethnicity, but I found myself carving out a new future beyond just an Asian name. Like many others, it was the chance I had waited for.

Asian-Australians are still underrepresented

In recent years, there has been a growing number of Asian-Australians surfacing in prominent positions; some with a surname that is more difficult to pronounce than others.

There is still a long way to go for an Asian-Australian however, who remain underrepresented in public forums, on screens and in leadership positions. According to this year’s Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership by the Human Rights Commission, professionals from a non-European or Indigenous background only account for 5 percent of leadership positions amongst Australia’s ASX 200 companies.

Only 2.7 percent of non-Europeans currently occupy C-level positions and it’s safe to say that cultural diversity and equal representation is yet to be a common occurrence in Australia’s public and corporate realms.

Asian australians

Unlike my Dad, I could never justify a complete change in my name. Now, after having worked alongside talented men and women with Asian last names and a growing body of work I can call my own, I have reverted my Gmail signature and LinkedIn profiles back to ‘Shona Yang’. There are times when I still wonder whether I am being judged by my name, but I’m also starting to see the unique privilege that comes with it. It is a heritage, a pillar of my identity and a chance to resist stereotypes that are still pervasive in our society. As for my Dad — for better or worse — his name remains Earl Young.

Back to the streets of Phnom Penh

A few weeks before I was set to travel to Cambodia, Off-White™ opened its first doors to Sydney. I was Christmas shopping when I noticed the line outside, crowds of shoppers waiting for a chance to browse and buy Virgil Abloh’s coveted collection.

Fast forward three weeks. I’m forty minutes from Cambodia’s nascent capital, in the back streets of an underprivileged district. We’re here to visit a community of brick factory workers. They’re happy to see the bags of rice in the back of the van, and while the adults get down to the business of hand to mouth sustenance, it’s the kids that catch my attention.

I’m immediately reminded of the world I’ve come from. A world that consciously writes out a verdict on your past and future by the items on your sleeves. In more ways than one, high-end streetwear labels have come to represent the value of our existence.

On this particular visit, there’s one label that catches me by surprise. A young boy is clothed in signature yellow and white, the stripes on his shirt are sewn together to spell, ‘O-F-F W-H-I-T-E’. I let out a surprised chuckle as I continue to hold the little hands that wrap around my fingers.

Fashion was never intended to be equal – some choose to wait in line for a chance to wear half a paycheck on our shoulders, while others wait here to collect a kilogram of rice.

The proliferation of fake replicas in Cambodia is no surprise

As the hype of the day changes in the west so too does fake fashion in the developing parts of the world. Four years ago when I visited Cambodia, the standard of fake goods was disappointing. Today, the side carts and overcrowded markets proudly boast the freshest streetwear trend of the day: YEEZY knock-offs. Supreme knock-offs, Nike slip-ons, and Off-White™ shirts have made their way into the backstreets of Phnom Penh – the ubiquity of Off-White™ replicas draped on street kids in Cambodia gives ‘streetwear’ a whole new meaning.

Need to know what’s trending in the world? Take a peek at the scraps on the backs of these street kids who are unknowingly caught up in a furious scramble to keep up with the rest of the world.

Ten noteworthy #MeToo tweets

Social media ‘movements’ come and go and only few will outlive its digital lifespan. Recently, pockets of #MeToo (and #HimThough) posts have caught my eye, and undoubtedly yours too.

It was nothing more than a positive sentiment at first, but the trail of posts from friends and old colleagues have been hard to shake off. That’s the power of storytelling – one act of bravery that momentarily makes you stop and reflect on what actually goes on.

The #MeToo campaign actually started years ago by @TaranaBurke, an advocate, youth worker and blogger for women of colour. She says, the movement aims to radicalize the notion of mass healing.


It caught on after actress Alyssa Milano publicly shared her own #MeToo story and invited victims around the world to post #MeToo as a symbol of solidarity. To some extent, it’s shed light on the reality of sexual harassment and the varying degrees of it too. It’s given a glimpse of the many faces of the issue and just the sheer ubiquity of any form of harassment.

I started reading a lot of #MeToo posts

So you too huh?

Some of the stories have been difficult to read. Others have been heartwarming. But a story is still a story.

There’s no common thread of the #MeToo posts – it’s not a racial issue or even a gender issue. It’s affected men and women alike and the one simple fact that connects us all – everyone has been affected either physically, emotionally, or both.

The ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, aren’t counted in magnitude but in memories of pain and fear. For some, including myself, these memories have resurfaced with every hashtag.

Like anything else, the momentum will slow and the impact will dull. People can say the attempt is futile or your story is inconsequential but what makes a lasting impact is one degree of change – whether it’s your ability to start talking about your experience, or a sharpened sensitivity towards others, the stories speak for themselves.

From the heap of gold out there, here are ten noteworthy #MeToo tweets:

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Myanmar Photo Diary

Yangon and Sittwe, 2015

I’ve always wanted to travel to Myanmar. I finally booked my flight to Yangon in November 2015, coinciding with the country’s momentous elections where I witnessed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi rise to the presidential seat.

My trip began in the vibrant city of Yangon where streets are lined with beautiful buildings left behind by the British.

What did I enjoy the most? Chasing sunsets in Sittwe and exploring Myanmar by train, on the back of a motorbike, by bicycle and bus. Watch the moments here:

If you ever get the chance, soak in the colours of Yangon’s livelihood and taste the streets that tinker on the edge of old and new: