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Letter from North Korea Part 2: Meeting together but not mixing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 13, 2012 - On each of the three days of the seminar on reforestation in Pyongyang, our delegation was driven to the People’s Cultural Palace, a large, sprawling, attractive building built in traditional Korean style. As in our hotel, the large interior spaces conveyed the impression that the building was underutilized. We -- 14 international scientists -- and our Korean colleagues entered by separate doors. When we got to the meeting room, they were usually already seated, and we filed in to the front seats in the rows nearest the front of the room. We began in a side room, where we met Ri Song Uk, the director of Pyongyang International Information Center for New Technology & Economy, the host organization.

Americans are not allowed to exchange e-mails directly with anyone in North Korea, and the possibilities for interpersonal interactions during the course of our visit were limited. For example, during a break in the meetings, Kim Jong Ho, one of three PIINTEC staff members who accompanied us the entire time we were in the DPRK, introduced me to Ri Wan Il, vice chairman of the Central Botanical Garden. I presented Mr. Ri with my card, which was apparently not allowed, and with the Garden 150th anniversary book. Within a very short time, Mr. Kim was holding the book. In that way I was reminded that all literature has to be scrutinized before it can be deposited in the central facilities at PIINTEC, usually its only possible destination.

I was invited to communicate with the Garden, but indirectly; and it was not possible to easily gain an idea of its goals and objectives. The three people who accompanied us everywhere were very pleasant and efficient, but they clearly had been charged with keeping some distance between us and our DPRK counterparts. Certainly none of us was allowed to wander off alone!

The room in which our seminar took place had pale green walls, with three rows of chairs around three sides, skylights and large portraits of Kim Jung Il and Kim Song Un displayed on the wall at the front of the room. The title of our seminar and announcement of its sponsors were displayed below the portraits, mainly in English but with a few lines in Korean. The relatively small projection screen was on the side, placed diagonally to the room and rather difficult to see. On the back wall, behind the rows of desks and chairs, were images of various restoration projects in the country.

When we came out for tea and coffee breaks, the 14 international scientists, along with our minders, were ushered into a side room, while the 85 or so Koreans took their tea and coffee in a large room that we had to pass through (briskly) on the way to ours.


What is the environmental situation in the DPRK?

The United Nations, long active in the country, has been working steadily to call attention to sustainability and the environment and their importance for the country’s future. This cooperative effort led over the years to an emphasis on sustainability, reforestation, clean air and clean water. It was these considerations that led PIINTEC to set up our symposium on reforestation, a major need for the country.

The Korean Peninsula as a whole is about the size of Minnesota, with the DPRK and the ROK each about half of the total area. It is mountainous, with only about a sixth of the land suitable for crops. The Korean Peninsula is biologically rather rich, with about 3,150 species of plants, about 10 percent of them, including seven genera, found nowhere else.

North Korea's human population is about 24.5 million, projected to grow slowly to about 27 million by 2050. About a tenth of the nation’s population, more than 2 million people, starved to death in the great famine of 1995-7, with strong efforts being been made to avoid repeating that kind of dreadful crisis. In agriculture, the government, unable to afford much fertilizer or pesticide application, has officially turned to organic methods in an attempt to boost productivity at lower cost.

During our seminar, about 30 papers were presented, alternately by Korean scientists speaking Korean, very well translated, and then by the members of our delegation, all speaking English. The papers presented by the Koreans were of high quality, dealing with all aspects of reforestation.

About five-sixths of the country is too steep to cultivate sustainably, but during the famine of 1995-7 and over the past several decades generally, hunger has been so widespread that many places really unsuitable for agriculture were brought into cultivation anyway, with bad results as the topsoil washed away and yields fell to very low values or nothing.

About 40 percent of the country’s forests were destroyed to grow crops and for firewood – remember that there is essentially no electricity in rural areas, and the climate is similar to that of northern Wisconsin or North Dakota. The people need firewood or some other source of energy to keep warm!


Because of the widespread forest destruction, the DPRK has adopted a “Ten Year Plan for Afforestation/Reforestation,” intended to rehabilitate 2 million hectares of degraded forests – this goal is being taken very seriously.

A high proportion of the reforestation is in the form of agroforestry, a system in which the planted trees are selected to yield useful products, sometimes with perennial or even annual crops interplanted between the trees. We heard about several really good examples of agroforestry being implemented successfully, in one case with assistance from the Swiss development agency, with the principles involved well understood and applied.

The Koreans are responding actively to ongoing climate change, mapping the current and future distribution of specific kinds of trees and developing forest plantings accordingly. They are also trying to do their part in developing alternative energy to prevent contributing to the accumulation of greenhouse gasses that pose such a problem for us all in the atmosphere.

Our delegation also presented high quality papers, and the occasion was clearly a good opportunity for all of us to realize the benefits of interchange and to resolve to try to follow up with some of our colleagues.

Ours was a fascinating visit to a land about which most Americans know very little. As we were driven back to the airport early on a Saturday morning, we viewed the fields, patches of pines and other conifers, and large numbers of people walking or bicycling along streets, with renewed interest and understanding. We hoped that our visit and the interactions it made possible might contribute in a small way to understanding and the gradual easing of tensions in this unusual corner of the world.

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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