North Korea – an Improbable Scientific Seminar and the Strange Tale of the USS Pueblo

bridges vol. 34, July 2012 / Neureiter on S&T in Diplomacy

By Norman P. Neureiter

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Norman P. Neureiter Norman P. Neureiter It was quite remarkable that it could happen at all: 85 North Korean scientists, 25 of them from their State Academy of Sciences and the rest from multiple DPRK institutions involved in restoration ecology, reforestation, increasing the fertility of cropland, etc., meeting together with 14 foreign scientists including five Americans, two Canadians, one Chinese, and the rest from various European countries.

But from March 6 to 13, 2012, it did happen. An international seminar on forest and landscape restoration took place in Pyongyang. The seminar lasted for three days and covered a wide variety of projects and approaches to restoration ecology. After the seminar, field trips were organized: first to a tree nursery, then a large collective farm (growing mostly rice); to the Pyongyang Botanical Garden where we visitors planted two trees; northwest to a beautiful mountain park and resort called Myohyang; and finally some de rigueur sightseeing of statues, monuments, buildings, and shops (especially art shops) in Pyongyang.

Pohyon Temple at Mount Myohyang The Pohyon Temple, at the entrance to the Sangwon Valley, Mount Myohyang - North Korea. Image by David Stanley from Nanaimo, CanadaMyohyang was still cold, with the very attractive hotel almost empty and very few patrons to look at the forests, which had regrown after being destroyed in the Korean War. However, we did climb up several hundred snowy granite steps carved out of the cliff, with chains strung for handrails along the narrow hiking path, to reach breathtaking views over the mountains. Back at ground level were two huge buildings – one, we were told, had 200 marble rooms and the other was even larger. The bigger one was dedicated to displaying over 250,000 gifts received by Eternal President Kim Il Sung from leaders and distinguished visitors around the world; the smaller held the more than 70,000 gifts to the Great Leader and Great General Kim Jong Il from his many visitors. It is clear that the Asian tradition of bearing gifts to leaders is alive and well in North Korea. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's gift to Kim Jong Il was there: a basketball signed by Michael Jordan; so was Jimmy Carter's very small glass ash tray (allegedly crystal); and surprisingly there was also a framed picture against a dark wood backing of the fabulous cover of the Science magazine issue from February 16, 2001, that announced the sequencing of the human genome. It had been presented by our peripatetic news reporter for Science magazine, Richard Stone, to the DPRK State Academy of Sciences in 2004 – resulting in an excellent article about biological research in the DPRK.

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