An international delegation co-organized by AAAS ended a rare, week-long visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) with new understanding about the nation’s environmental challenges and its commitment to addressing them.
For Norman P. Neureiter, senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, it was the third recent visit to the DPRK, and he characterized seminar in Pyongyang as constructive and “extremely interesting.”
“The trip came off very well—it was truly a remarkable trip,” Neureiter said, despite the current tensions on the Korean Peninsula. “The importance of building trust cannot be underestimated. It is extremely important.”
Former AAAS President Peter Raven, a botanist and president emeritus of the acclaimed Missouri Botanical Garden, described the DPRK as deeply committed to addressing land-use issues related to the health of its forests and farms.
“Cooperating with DPRK scientists in their reforestation projects while we learn from each other is a worthy objective,” Raven said. “Not only will it help in the gradual process of starting to come together for our common benefit, but it can be worthwhile both scientifically and, we hope, in relieving human suffering during the years to come.”
The visit was jointly organized by the Beijing-based Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP) and AAAS. It was hosted by the Pyongyang International Information of New Technology and Economy Center (PIINTEC), a DPRK non-governmental and non-profit organization that organizes international exchanges and cooperation. The international delegation was assembled with support from the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.
The visiting delegation was comprised of 14 researchers—including experts in forests, river reclamation, soil, and agriculture; they came from Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The delegation arrived in Pyongyang, the nation’s capital, on 6 March. The DPRK remains in a state of mourning following the death of Supreme Leader Kim Jon Il in December; his son, Kim Jong-un, succeeded him. The DPRK had celebrated a national tree-planting day on 2 March. Throughout the visit, the United States and South Korea were conducting joint naval exercises off of the Korean coast, and news reports in the People’s Republic reflected a state of tension.
But Neureiter and Raven said the tensions did not affect the International Seminar on Forest and Landscape Restoration, held over three days at the People’s Palace of Culture.
The DPRK delegation included 85 scientists and others, including 25 from the State Academy of Sciences and others from the Ministry of Land and Environmental Conservation, the Academy of Agricultural Science, the State Science and Technology Commission, the Central Botanical Garden, Kim Il Sung University, and the Nature Conservation Union of Korea.
Each researcher in the international delegation and 17 DPRK researchers made presentations, with their talks followed by question-and-answer sessions.
The seminar was followed by two days of field trips, including stops at a large farm and a tree nursery.
Most of the country is too mountainous to cultivate, but over recent decades—and especially during acute food shortages in the 1990s—efforts were made to convert even steep terrain to food production. Some 40% of the nation’s forests were destroyed for crop production and firewood, Raven said—at a steep cost to topsoil. Now, he said, there appears to be a concerted official effort to address the challenges. And because pesticides and fertilizers are so costly, the nation has embraced organic farming practices.
The United Nations “has been working steadily to call attention to sustainability and the environment and their importance for the country’s future,” Raven wrote in The Beacon, an online news publication serving the St. Louis area. “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 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 also “responding actively” to address climate change and develop alternative energy sources, Raven wrote.
After a closing session on 12 March, the delegation left the next day.
Reflecting on the visit, Neureiter and Raven said it provided benefits for researchers on all sides.
“We are enthusiastic about contributing to human understanding, the advance of science, and the attainment of global sustainability,” Raven said in an email interview.
The delegation’s visit “exposes scientists from the DPRK to the kinds of research activity going on in other parts of the world, in fields where they work, but where they generally don’t have any contacts,” Neureiter added. “And our people learn something about their country.
“What we hope very much is that this is the beginning of a relationship where there might be some exchanges, some element of science cooperation, in the future. That clearly was the underlying theme—this is the beginning of a relationship that we would like to extend.”
Neureiter is a pioneer of modern U.S. science diplomacy. Trained as a chemist, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service and in 1967 he became the first U.S. science attaché in Eastern Europe, based at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw. From 1969 to 1973, he worked in President Richard Nixon’s Office of Science and Technology, helping craft agreements with China and the Soviet Union that brought a thaw to the Cold War.
In 2000, he was appointed the first science and technology adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State, serving a three-year term. He joined AAAS in 2004, and today serves as senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy; chairman of the senior advisory board to the AAAS online publication Science & Diplomacy; and acting director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
He previously visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 2009 and 2011.
Watch a video of Norman P. Neureiter discussing the historic impact and current promise of science diplomacy.
Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.