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Letter from North Korea, Part 1: A glimpse of a rarely visited country

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2012 - On  March 6, in the fading light of a cool winter day, I found myself near the center of Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea  standing with a delegation of 14 international scientists. We were bowing toward a monumental bronze sculpture of two equestrian figures mounted on a large, irregular stone base. On the leading horse was seated Kim Il Sung, founder of the DPRK, and on the following horse, his son and successor Kim Jong Il, who died last year. Television cameras and newspaper photographers were recording our visit.

What brought our group to this unusual place and what were we doing there?

We had arrived a few hours earlier that afternoon from Beijing, traveling to Pyongyang for an international, three-day seminar on reforestation. We had come from Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Israel, The Netherlands and the U.S.; our delegation included five Americans. The country is still in a period of mourning for Kim Jong Il. His son Kim Jong Un is the national leader now. We had placed flowers at the base of the sculpture, and then lined up and bowed, as a gesture of respect.

It was strange and unexpected for me to be a visitor to Pyongyang. Popularly known as North Korea, the DPRK was an almost complete mystery to us before our plane descended from cloudy skies into a snowy landscape, coasting up a long runway to an old-fashioned, somewhat barn-like air terminal.

We have come in the spirit of science diplomacy, united by the desire to make a modest contribution to mutual understanding by using the language of science. For this unique occasion, we were invited by Pyongyang International Information Center for New Technology & Economy, PIINTEC, an organization specifically created to foster scientific and technical exchange between the DPRK and the rest of the world. Our principal liaison with PIINTEC was Kosima Weber Liu, a remarkable German woman who has lived in Beijing for many years and is executive director of the Environmental Education Media Program. The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, publisher of the journal Science, played a key role in funding and facilitating our visit, with Norm Neureiter, a genial diplomat with decades of experience, leading our delegation.

Visiting the DPRK is particularly difficult for Americans, as we have no formal diplomatic relations. The United States has established sanctions against the DPRK because of its efforts to build atomic weapons and other problems, and relationships between our two countries are in general as cold as the weather we encountered on our arrival! For Americans, our visas, issued at the DPRK Embassy in Beijing, were not affixed to our passports, and they were collected when we departed – as if we had never been in the country at all.


Pyongyang, with about 2 million people, is a sprawling, open city of block apartment and houses and office buildings, many about 10-12 stories high, with some housing spreading out into the countryside. Power failures seem to occur occasionally, as during the unloading of our bags from the airplane when we arrived and for a few hours in the middle of one night. Apparently in most of the country there is no electricity at all.

Cell phones are prohibited, but an Egyptian company is establishing a network, and so they probably will be abundant before long, judged by what’s happend in other countries. Computers are allowed; but there is little internet service, and access to it is highly restricted.

All Koreans seem to dress in black or very dark blue, only occasionally brown.  All participants in the seminar were wearing ties, with people generally quite formal and polite at all times.

As we were being driven to dinner, we saw large numbers of people cracking rocks, digging up banked roadsides and planting trees and shrubs. We were told that they were, for example, university students who were assigned those duties for a period. Apparently the students, faculty and staff of most universities had been assigned to work brigades, with classes suspended. The city was being prepared for the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth in 2012, with great celebrations planned; and the city was being beautified accordingly by most of its people, regardless of their main work assignments.

A unique sight in Pyongyang was a very tall triangular building, all glass, that dominates the central part of the city. Intended to be a hotel, it was constructed several years ago, but the engineering was faulty; and the elevators would not work, so the completion of its interior was abandoned. At the time it was being built it was intended to be the tallest building in the world, but it has since been surpassed by a building in Kuala Lumpur, and perhaps by others. It has recently been decided to complete the interior of the first 35 floors and open those as a hotel, simply abandoning the building’s slender top.  A very strange situation indeed!

Our delegation stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel, one of three tourist hotels in Pyongyang, a tall building crowned by a revolving restaurant. We were all on the 35th floor. As in many buildings we visited, its public areas were large and impressive but not particularly comfortable – there was little furniture, for example – and the guest rooms were perfectly adequate but not at all lavish. There are very few foreign visitors in the DPRK at any time; consequently, there are few shops or other amenities catering to them.

In the stores we did visit, liquor and medicines, often derived from ginseng, were abundant, along with paintings, needlepoint, ceramics and dolls. One kind of liquor featured a very large snake in clear spirit, a dreadful looking concoction supposed to increase virility. I hope never to find out!

Our lunches and dinners mostly took place at other hotels or restaurants; the food was characteristically delicious, with rich miso soup, beef mixed with vegetables and spices, and various tasty treats, accompanied by the inevitable kimchee. Cold barley noodles were a tasty alternative that we enjoyed often. One evening we dined at an Italian restaurant that specialized in pizza – delicious!  It was somewhat embarrassing to be served so well in a country where many people must go to bed hungry.


We learned before coming here that North Koreans do not like us to refer to their country as “North Korea,” since that is for them too vivid a reminder of the division of their country.  

We were delighted that, just a few weeks before we arrived, after a gap of several years in the negotiations, the U.S. reached a potentially important agreement with the DPRK. This agreement specified that they would stop their program to develop atomic weapons and long-range missiles, with us sending a large quantity of food to help alleviate the acute shortages that affect the country so much. We hoped that this might lead to a more relaxed atmosphere than would have been possible otherwise.

Unfortunately for these hopes, just before our arrival, U.S. and South Korean military forces started scheduled annual joint exercises, involving major movements of troops, equipment and weapons to the south of the DPRK and in the seas on both sides of the peninsula. So that was the atmosphere we encountered.

Similar joint exercises have been conducted in March and April every year for many years – certainly long enough for people to get very nervous, and for the possibility of serious mistakes being made on either side. To get a feeling for how the maneuvers make the people feel, recall the Cuban missile crisis – real danger very near! When we arrived, March 6, TV programming was almost exclusively devoted to showing huge demonstrations of soldiers and people demonstrating their solidarity and a willingness to fight.

Peter H. Raven is president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and one of the world's leading botanists and advocates of conservation and biodiversity. In addition, Raven is past president and chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest organization of professional scientists in the world. He is also chairman of the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, and Chair of the Division of Earth and Life Studies of the National Research Council, which includes biology, chemistry, and geology.

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