An in-depth interview on Palmer's visit to North Korea

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Mar 23, 2012

Cold, very isolated, and ecologically desolate are the descriptors Margaret Palmer uses when talking about her March 7 – 13 trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).  Palmer, SESYNC’s Executive Director, was one of fourteen international scholars that traveled as a team to North Korea to consider ecological restoration options for the barren lands of this impoverished country.  Jessica Marx, an Environmental Science Research Assistant at SESYNC, recently interviewed Palmer about the trip:

 Margaret Palmer: I was invited by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to speak about my research on ecological restoration.  Dr. Norm Neureiter, who is a senior diplomacy fellow for AAAS, and Dr. Peter Raven, who is past chair of the Board of Directors for AAAS, helped organize the event and also accompanied me and two other American scientists on the visit.  They worked with the Pyongyang International Information Centre for new Technology (PIINTEC) and the Environmental Education Media Project in China who invited nine other international participants from Canada, Germany, Denmark, China, and the U.K. 

 JM: Did the North Koreans participate? And what was their interest?

 MP: Yes! We were joined at the conference by more than 70 North Korean scientists as well as officials of the DPRK Ministry of Land and Environmental Conservation, the State Science and Technology Commission, and the Central Botanical Garden.  About 10 of them gave presentations, many of which focused on the survival of tree seedlings that were planted as part of the country’s focus on reforestation.  During the 1990’s at the height of a major famine in the country, major deforestation occurred as the trees were used for firewood and the bark for food.  The land was basically devastated and the North Koreans have a great interest in restoring their homeland.

 JM: Can you comment on how advanced ecological research is in North Korea?

MP: We were not allowed to spend time with their scientists one on one, so it is hard to judge.  We were taken to separate rooms during coffee breaks and the North Korean participants could not join our delegation on the field trip that followed the conference.  The most interaction I had with one of their scientists was when one accompanied us on a post-meeting outing to Mt. Myohuang Biodiversity reserve.  He explained to us that the forests of this mountain were replanted following the Korean winter, provided the names of the most common tree and bird species, and indicated they want to commit to long term monitoring at this site.   However, it was clear that this reserve, which is part of an international mountain forest reserve program, is quite unusual for the country.  Very little ecological research is being done if it is not related to agriculture.

 JM: What was the focus of their presentations?

 MP: The loss of the vegetation during the 1990s left the land unprotected so there was tremendous erosion and the soil quality is very poor.  Their agricultural production is still quite low and inadequate to feed the country, so many of their presentations focused on reforestation and the compatibility of agroforestry with basic food production by farming communities.  Other presentations focused on how best to enrich the soil, increase water retention, and even on climate change.

 One interesting presentation focused on climate change and how deforestation has exacerbated the situation.  North Korean scientist Han Jun Chol presented data indicating that the average temperature country-wide had increased by 1.9°C while globally the average increase has only been 0.74°C.  He also provided data showing that dramatic increases in average temperature within the country occurred in the decade of 1990 – 2000 with significantly higher increases in the northern part of the country (where deforestation was greater) than in Pyongyang.

 JM: Was there anything in the DPRK presentations that surprised you, good or bad?

 MP: Yes, a number of things. First and foremost, the fact that the DPRK scientists began their presentation quoting the “Great Leader Kim Il Sung.”  The leader was given great credit for understanding “the importance of ecosystems, forests, and restoration.”  I was also a little surprised at their frankness about the level of hunger during the 1990’s and the fact that famine is still ongoing due to the desertification and pest outbreaks that followed deforestation.

 I was also quite interested to hear Dr. Choi Gwang Il speak about the desire to focus on measurements of carbon sequestration and the development of carbon offset programs.  But during the question and answer sessions he was quite vague about these things and did not provide any evidence that such measurements or programs were being planned.            

From the perspective of a scientist, I was surprised at the inconsistencies we heard at the conference.  For example, one scientist spoke about the low rate of survival of seedlings that had been planted, yet when we visited a tree nursery we were told that survival was 70% even in the long term.  This rate, of course, would be much higher than one would expect even in fertile soils with adequate water.

 JM: As a water scientist, what was your assessment of the opportunities and challenges for restoration of aquatic ecosystems?  

 MP: I was quite surprised to find almost no focus on aquatic restoration despite clear evidence of river and stream degradation everywhere we went.  I could see where major inputs of sediment (from soil erosion) were ongoing and presumably pollutants from sewage and fertilizer were moving in to the water.  Even in the Mt. Myohuang reserve area the river was impounded in multiple places.  

 In terms of challenges, I would say that even if we can work with the North Korean scientists to move things forward scientifically, the situation on the ground is very, very bleak - both in terms of socio-cultural capacity to understand the problems and solutions, as well as the availability of materials and technical support to implement restoration actions. 

 JM: Are you optimistic about future scientific work with scientists from the DPRK?

 MP: Unfortunately, just since I have returned home, political tensions have increased substantially.  Leaders from Pyongyang have announced a planned launch of a long-range rocket next month to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the “father of their country” – Kim Il Sung.  They have said it was to launch a satellite, but the U.S. and its allies believe this is a nuclear missile test.  State Hillary Clinton has referred to this step as "highly provocative" and, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has indicated, could likely slow or stop aid from other countries.  So I think it would be a difficult time to initiate collaborations.  I can only hope that things will get better in the future.  Certainly, on an individual basis, North Korea scientists are eager to collaborate as were all of the international delegates on the trip.

Learn more about this trip in the March 23 issue of Science magazine (PDF).

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