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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 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 Myohyang 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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Step by step

The highly improbable seminar event was organized by AAAS with immense help from a China-based NGO called EEMP (Environmental Education Media Project), which over a number of years has built up an excellent and mutually trusting relationship with an NGO in the DPRK called PIINTEC. With financial support from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation in Washington, DC, we were able to bring foreign participants who could not provide for their own travel and to cover most of the costs of the event itself. All foreign visitors presented papers, as did 17 of the participating DPRK scientists, with excellent simultaneous interpretation of all presentations and subsequent Q&A sessions. It was impressive to observe how the Q&A sessions after each talk progressed in openness and frankness from considerable caution and hesitancy on both sides at the beginning. After a day or so, it appeared that questions from both sides were being answered directly, frankly, and accurately, and it became a real scientific meeting.

Discussions involved the challenges of rebuilding forests that had been cut down for heating or to make room for small local gardens for growing vegetables during periods of famine. The problems of soils on slopes that had been eroded away and abused were talked about. Soil enrichment, the maximum use of organic matter in rebuilding soils, the role of tree nurseries in supplying seedlings for the whole country were also discussed. It was apparent that vigorous tree planting is now taking place in Pyongyang and, reportedly, throughout the country.

The visiting scientists showed definite interest in further involvement and cooperation with the DPRK, but there are many obstacles to developing such cooperation. First of all, the western partner will almost certainly have to pay all costs for whatever project is undertaken. Furthermore, direct communication with one's cooperating partner is almost impossible: There can be no direct email communication, the postal service is unreliable, and visas for travel in both directions are not always easy to obtain and approvals may take a very long time.

We sensed an interest by some of the visitors in having DPRK scientists as visiting scholars in universities abroad; however, all costs usually have to be paid by the receiving institution and North Korean scientists will only travel in groups of two or three, often with limitations on their length of stay. In addition, the limited ability to communicate makes it very challenging to design and agree in advance on a complicated cooperative project. However, if such problems can be overcome, one will find the North Korean cooperators well trained and knowledgeable in their specific fields.

One-on-one conversations with the DPRK scientists were quite limited, certainly for language reasons, and secondly, because private conversations between North Koreans and foreigners are discouraged. For example, at the coffee breaks separate rooms were provided for the foreigners and for the DPRK scientists. No meals were taken together. One of our three or four English-speaking "minders" was always present if there was a private conversation. When I questioned the seemingly conscious effort to separate us from their scientists (as in the coffee breaks), the answer I got (perhaps an appropriate one from the Korean perspective, if one thinks about it a bit), was "Step by step, Norman; step by step." They were telling me: Let us build some mutual trust before you can have full access to our country and our people.

I am waiting to see what continued relationships can emerge from this first seminar on a very important topic for North Korea. Unfortunately, both countries' attitudes toward cooperation are affected by overall political relations and, when these are not good, there is a negative impact on attempts to develop cooperative relationships even in mutually beneficial and nonsensitive areas of science.

But something else also happened during this visit to the DPRK.

Aboard the USS Pueblo

During my previous two visits, I had wanted very much to visit the USS Pueblo, one of the 436 actively commissioned vessels in the US Navy, which happens to be presently anchored in Pyongyang's Taedong River not far from the Yanggakdo Hotel where we were staying, located on an island in that same river. The Pueblo has been in the DPRK for 44 years. My previous attempts to visit the ship had been unsuccessful, but this time there was no issue and four of us made the visit. It is quite a story.

The following fascinating details about the "Pueblo Incident" and related issues are largely taken from Wikipedia. For anyone interested in the story, a large quantity of excellent source material is available: on the Web, in books, films, biographies, investigation reports, military records, etc. from both North Korea and the US.

USS Pueblo AGER-2 The USS Pueblo was built in 1944 on the Great Lakes, but only in 1966 was it commissioned as a US Navy vessel. In 1967 it became a US spy ship designated AGER-2 (Auxiliary General Environmental Research) assigned to collect electronic and signal intelligence work under both the Navy and the National Security Agency. On January 11, 1968, the Pueblo left Sasebo, Japan, with orders "to intercept and conduct surveillance of Soviet Union naval activity in the Tsushima Strait and to gather signal and electronic intelligence" along the eastern coast of North Korea, but not to go closer than 13 nautical miles – 12 miles being the internationally agreed border for a nation's territorial waters (North Korea, however, claimed a 50-mile limit). In any case, the first sign of trouble came in the late afternoon of January 20, when a North Korean Soviet-style sub chaser passed within 4 kilometers of the Pueblo, which was still well out in international waters.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, another dramatic incident was beginning. A 31-member squad known as Unit 124 of the (North) Korean People's Army, after two years of brutal training for the single mission of assassinating South Korean President Park Chung-hee, had successfully infiltrated through the DMZ into South Korea and was within 100 yards of the President's residence by 8:00 p.m. on January 21. When these commandos, by then dressed in South Korean army uniforms, were detected at a checkpoint, a firefight ensued, which turned into a massive nationwide sweep. By January 29, all the attackers were dead except for one who surrendered and another who is believed to have slipped back through the DMZ into North Korea.

Commander Lloyd Bucher on board the Pueblo was not informed by the Navy of this incident, nor was he ordered to return to Japan. There has been speculation that the failed attack in South Korea may have motivated the North to move against the US spy ship. Whatever the motivation, by the afternoon of January 22, the situation at sea was becoming more serious as two North Korean fishing trawlers passed within 30 yards of the Pueblo. The next day, the Pueblo was challenged and threatened with boarding by a North Korean sub chaser, eventually backed up by two MiG fighters and four torpedo boats. Unable to outrun the pursuers, the Pueblo managed to prevent boarding for two hours but was eventually fired upon by the sub chaser's 57-mm cannon and the torpedo boats' machine guns. The Pueblo's two .50-caliber machine guns were difficult to operate, the crew had little or no training for a fight, and the guns remained covered by their camouflaging tarpaulins and were never activated.

After the shelling, the Pueblo "signified compliance" and began burning classified documents as the ship moved toward Korean territorial waters. However, the single hour the crew had before actual boarding was not sufficient to destroy all such papers and a large amount of sensitive material was apparently left intact. When Commander Bucher tried to stop his ship again before crossing the 13-mile limit line, the Pueblo was fired on again and the capture was complete. By then, one crew member was dead and seven wounded from shrapnel. It is fascinating that, during the entire time of attack, Pueblo was in radio contact with its headquarters in Japan. Air support was promised, but the Air Force could not respond quickly enough; and a US aircraft carrier 500 miles away did not have planes ready that were equipped for attacking surface ships. No military help was available for the Pueblo.

The Pueblo was taken to Wonsan and the crew was moved twice to POW camps. Eventually, through psychological and physical torture and abuse, Commander Bucher was forced to confess in writing his transgressions and those of his crew in spying on North Korea. From Congress came suggestions to threaten a nuclear attack if the ship were not returned and military options were considered, but President Johnson was reported to be mainly concerned about the fate of the crew members. The North Koreans demanded a written apology from the United States Government, if the crew were to be returned safely.

Finally, after 11 months, the US did submit a written apology and the prisoners were released, walking one by one across the "Bridge of No Return" at Panmunjom between North and South Korea. Immediately after the return of the last of the surviving 82 crew members and one body in a casket, the US repudiated its apology; and the Pueblo Incident was over with the exception of inquiries, books, films, analyses, and memories on both sides.

Not only was our request to visit the Pueblo promptly arranged by our hosts at PIINTEC, it turned out that a 71-year-old retired admiral from the North Korean Navy was our guide. He said that he had been a simple crewman on one of the vessels involved in the capture. He pointed out the shell holes in the superstructure from the 57-mm cannon (now circled in red); noted the two pitifully small .50-caliber machine guns on the Pueblo that were never used; showed us the spot in the center of the electronic equipment room where the crew was burning documents; and claimed he had kicked a US Navy officer who was crouching under a table next to the wall in the wheelhouse as he came aboard. He was a tall, erect, military man describing facts as he lived and remembered them from 44 years ago. There was no braggadocio, no strutting, no enmity, simply a military man describing to interested visitors a military job well done – what soldiers do. It was a fascinating visit. I still remember the Pueblo affair as a major incident of the Cold War.

Wikipedia also reports that there have been hints – once to Madeleine Albright during her visit in 2000 and later to former US Ambassador Don Gregg – that the DPRK might be willing to return the vessel under certain conditions. On the other hand, if the reported number of 250,000 visitors have toured the ship since it has been a museum and the price is the same as the four of us paid (€10 each) it has been a great source of profit for the country. Despite that, the ship does look a bit forlorn as if it is in the early stages of rusting away.

Ironically, even as we were in Pyongyang talking about science cooperation in rebuilding their forests and farmland through restoration via ecologically sound practices, the US and South Korean military forces were conducting extended maneuvers on land and sea just below the DPRK borders. Every day, the woman in charge from PIINTEC would say that war tensions are rising and it is a very serious situation. At our evening dinners – which, in the several days we were there, took us to five different excellent restaurants – there was often a large TV set visible from the table. Every night we saw pictures of the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un touring military facilities, peering through binoculars to observe the enemy to the south, and vowing to meet any aggression with waves of devastating firepower. The rhetoric in the press against the president of South Korea was also viciously nasty and intense, with the American imperialists also implicated.

In response to those comments from PIINTEC, I would say at any opportunity that relations are better than they have been for a long time. I said that an agreement had just been reached for the US to provide more food aid to North Korea and the DPRK had agreed to modify its nuclear program and let the IAEA back into the country. Unfortunately, that agreement only lasted until North Korea proceeded to launch a rocket for the stated purpose of putting a satellite into orbit (unsuccessfully it turned out) to celebrate Kim Il Sung's 100th birthday, after which the US decided to cancel the promised food aid and the North Koreans changed their minds about their nuclear program – even behaving for a while as if they might conduct a third nuclear test, although now they have said such a test will not take place.

So, once again, US-DPRK relations are at a very low ebb, creating a challenging environment for science diplomacy. One can legitimately ask whether it makes sense to continue doing it. I still believe it does for the same reasons that I have always believed in the value of engagement through science, despite the increasing difficulty of finding funders willing to support such activities. Much as the forests of Myohyang represent years of restoration and regrowth, science diplomacy also requires us to work patiently with our eyes on the future.

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The author, Norman Neureiter, has been a senior advisor to the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD) since July 2009.

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