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A Pioneering Effort to Engage with North Korea May Offer a Model for Building Science Cooperation
Karin Lee and Robert Springs
For nearly a dozen years, Robert Springs and his colleagues have built a low-key but vital relationship with North Korea that defies most every Western stereotype about the Asian nation. They have worked with national and local leaders on a range of joint development projects. They have brought delegations of Americans to visit North Korea, and North Koreans to the United States. They have traveled the country and built human relationships.
Springs discussed his experiences during a recent event at AAAS, detailing some of the challenges and rewards in working with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on projects in education, food security, health, and other fields. But his talk also offered a range of insights for U.S. science and engineering leaders who recently have sought to develop a relationship with North Korean counterparts based on science cooperation.
"The general public image of North Korea in the United States is of an autocratic state, hostile to the outside world, where the people have little freedom and limited access to life's necessities." said Norman P. Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center on Science, Technology, and Security Policy. "This event was a chance to show more of the human side of North Korea--that there are people who live there and that they do respond positively to kindness and attention. For scientists, the message might be: Science cooperation will likely only develop slowly and gradually as we build trust with our North Korean counterparts."
Springs spoke 17 March at AAAS, in an event titled "A Different Look at North Korea." He is the founding chief executive officer and president of Atlanta-based Global Resource Services (GRS), a private, non-profit humanitarian organization which for the past 12 years has organized cooperative projects and other efforts to assist the people of the DPRK and other Asian nations.
Norman P. Neureiter
Neureiter, who moderated the event, also serves as senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. He noted that AAAS and other organizations have been working for months to build a relationship with North Korean science and government leaders that might eventually lead to exchanges and joint projects. Similar efforts have begun to develop or deepen U.S. relationships with scientists and engineers in China, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, Rwanda, and other nations.
Springs was introduced by Karin Lee, executive director of the National Committee on North Korea. Lee said that the small community of non-governmental organizations devoted to the DPRK inevitably goes through times of disappointment and times of hope. Springs, she said, is among "the most successful bearers of that hope."
GRS was founded in 1997, and initially worked with other organizations responding to complex food and humanitarian crises in the DPRK. In 1998, DPRK government officials asked the organization to establish a deeper relationship in which GRS would work with the country on humanitarian aid, development, and other issues. GRS is supported by a combination of gifts from individuals and grants from foundations, and, more recently, funds from the U.S. government.
In his talk and a question-and-answer session, Springs detailed some of the projects that his organization has worked on in North Korean communities—goat dairies, emergency generators for hospitals, and exchanges involving doctors from the United States and the DPRK.
GRS helped coordinate several years of exchanges between the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Pyongyang Medical University Hospital. The relationship led to a history-making collaboration in which doctors from the two institutions teamed on three laparoscopic surgeries.
But Springs also emphasized the values that govern GRS' person-to-person diplomacy. The values are embodied in what he called the "three Rs"—relationships, respect, and reconciliation. GRS has a staff of 40 worldwide (three of them in the DPRK), and training for all of them is shaped by those values, he said.
"One of the components of our three-R approach involves transparency with our DPRK partners," Springs said after the meeting. "We have included them in every aspect of our work—they attend our board meetings, team meetings and planning meetings, and they've stayed in our homes.... The more our GRS community—which includes U.S. scientists and professionals from many fields—engages our DPRK partners in the U.S. and in the DPRK, the more mutual understanding and respect are developed."
The projects focus on helping the people in the Korean villages where GRS is working, but it is neither charity nor an aid program; rather, Springs said, it is constructive development based on close collaboration. While the effort might help Koreans to learn the techniques of soy farming or laparoscopic surgery, the efforts yield another crucial result: the beginnings of reconciliation.
In that context, politics are largely put aside—even critical global issues like nuclear proliferation.
"That's not what we focus on," Springs said. "Obviously it affects us and we're interested in it, but our focus is on the human factor, on human security. Our main thing is to help... [the Koreans] reach self-sufficiency in health and education and their economy, so they can take care of themselves."
Trust doesn't come easily, he said, especially at the beginning. He described a project that was to bring an emergency generator to a hospital near the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
"When we first went there," Spring recalled, "they were very suspicious of us. They didn't want to share, they didn't want to talk. And so we had to help them understand who we were and what we were there for. 'We're here to partner with you, and to help you. We're looking at what you need and how we can help.'
"After a series of meetings over the course of a year," he said, "the whole atmosphere changed."
Springs said he has seen a similar response many times. "But after we go in and get to know them and show them the sincerity of our effort and what we're trying to do, it all changes. It's worked every time—I've never had it not work."
Patience, then, is essential. So is flexibility. It took time to build trust with national government leaders, and it takes time to build trust in individual communities. Things shift unexpectedly, and those who work with DPRK have to be comfortable with that. And, Springs said, it has helped to have Korean-speakers on the staff.
That way, he explained, "we can speak from the heart-level: 'We're here to work with you and solve challenges, whatever they may be. We don't have a political agenda. We're there to help, to work and to feed people. We want to provide emergency generators so that when someone walks 60 kilometers to the hospital to get treated, and they can't get treated because there's no electricity—we want to solve that problem.'"
Could such an approach work in building bilateral cooperation based on science, science education, and engineering?
Neureiter is cautiously hopeful that it might. He is a veteran of science diplomacy; during the administration of President Richard Nixon, he worked to craft science and technology agreements with the Soviet Union and China, and he served as science adviser to Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell from 2000-2003. In an interview, he suggested that science leaders can learn from Springs as they work to build a relationship with colleagues and government officials in the DPRK.
In Neureiter's view, GRS "has built an atmosphere of trust with the government there. The North Koreans they deal with seem to get visas to come to the U.S. and the GRS people have a degree of access to North Korea and the people there that few others have achieved. Of course, they are giving the North Koreans physical benefits—food, equipment, medical care, and so forth. And they are having nothing to do with the North Korean nuclear program.
"But they are certainly having an impact at the people-to-people level and in the attitudes of hundreds, maybe thousands, of North Koreans toward the American people. The North Korean regime is not totally immune to the views of its people, and that is a plus."
Building an S&T relationship with the DPRK may require the U.S. science community to provide tangible benefits, Neureiter said. Therefore, he continued, "the key question for the U.S. science community is: How much of that aid can we provide or do we want to provide? Certainly, dealing with North Korea now as a nuclear power is costing the United States billions per year in the defense context. So how much do we want to put into small initiatives that might work for peace? It ought to be worth some investment."
6 April 2009