This article was originally published by The Atlantic on December 15, 2012, and has been reproduced with permission.
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The United States has boots on the ground in North Korea.
Cowboy boots, size 10 Durangos, and they belong to Rob Springs, a Korean-speaking Arizona rancher. Springs and his cowboy boots made their 66th visit to North Korea in November 2012. They’ve spent nearly three years on the ground there since 1997, traveling to every part of the country.
Springs is a private citizen, and his story doesn’t deal with the issues high on our national security agenda—how the U.S. government deals with North Korea’s weapons and human rights.
But it’s an important story, because in critical respects it competes against the common narrative about North Korea that Americans—including those who must deal with its nuclear and missile programs—get almost daily from the media.
* * *
In 1997, with reports of starvation in North Korea reaching the United States, the Southern Baptist Church decided to send 100,000 children’s coats as aid and asked Springs to deliver them.
When Springs and the coats arrived at Pyongyang Airport on a freezing January day, the control tower asked the plane’s pilot to prepare his giant Antonov cargo jet for unloading.
The British pilot refused. “They want the plane, not the coats,” he told Springs.
That’s because the pilot had to immobilize the Antonov to prepare it for unloading. And he feared the North Koreans would then simply commandeer his plane.
To gauge whether they wanted the cargo or the plane, the pilot asked the North Koreans to send out forklifts to unload the pallets of coats. Prepare the plane first, the North Koreans replied.
Meanwhile, Springs and the crew started throwing bundles of coats out a small door in the back. As they did, workers materialized to carry the coats away. More coats out the door, more workers emerged to carry them away. The control tower would radio the pilot to lower the plane’s nose. The pilot would repeat his request for forklifts. And so it went.
Six hours later, with about 95,000 coats to go, the pilot decided maybe the Koreans wanted the coats after all. He lowered the plane’s front and swiveled up its nose, the North Koreans sent out forklifts, and then the empty plane flew off.
Springs remained behind with the coats to arrange distribution. He asked why the workers hadn’t brought out forklifts at the pilot’s request.
“You were warm in the plane. But it’s freezing outside and we’d be standing around in the cold. Why didn’t you just get the plane ready so we wouldn’t have to be out there so long?” Springs recalls the Koreans asking him.
For Springs, the mistrust on that first encounter, each side suspecting the worst of the other, became the key to understanding a lot of the problems in the relationship between the U.S. and the DPRK.
Springs decided to start an NGO, with staff and volunteers who understood the culture of North Korea and spoke Korean. The NGO would work for reconciliation between the U.S. and DPRK on the principles of mutual respect and building relationships. “So I got a $30,000 grant from the Southern Baptist Church, maxed out my credit cards, and founded GRS, Global Resource Services, in 1997.”
GRS has worked all over North Korea, in cities and villages, in nine of its ten provinces. GRS professional staff and volunteers—all Americans—have carried out roughly 200 development projects in agriculture, health, and education and cultural exchange. That adds up to almost 1,100 individual visits by Americans to North Korea since 1997. And North Koreans have made about 200 individual return visits to the U.S.
Springs said the starting point for every GRS project is always what the North Korean counterparts determine is their greatest need. “To be honest, that’s not necessarily what we might think their greatest need is. But given the mistrust, our experience is that if we show flexibility from the beginning, the North Koreans generally respond in kind.”
In 2002, GRS decided it had the resources to begin a new agricultural development project. They asked the North Koreans what kind of assistance would be most useful.
“Goats,” the North Koreans said.
The North Korean goal was improved nutrition for children by increased dairy production. The North was already dairying goats, but they didn’t give much milk. So the North Korean Ministry of Agriculture asked GRS to provide more productive Nubian goats from the United States.
GRS anchors every project in a partnership between U.S. and North Korean universities and research institutions, so its first step was to form its U.S. university partnership group. A GRS board member, Dr. Max Lennon, a past president of Clemson University, put GRS in touch with U.S. experts on goat dairies at Texas A&M, the University of Kentucky, Auburn University, and Langston University in Oklahoma. The experts volunteered their time to GRS and traveled to North Korea seven times over the next two years, for visits of two to three weeks per trip.
GRS also worked with animal husbandry experts in the Ministry of Agriculture’s Goat Research Institute to form a counterpart team of North Korean officials, academics, farm managers, and veterinarians. “We work with the appropriate DPRK government ministries to get the right partners on the DPRK side, and then, as we identify project sites, we bring in the local officials and managers who will actually operate the projects. It is an approach that has worked every time on every project we’ve done,” Springs explains.
North Korean experts—veterinarians, farm managers, and a dairy engineer—visited the U.S. twice for three-week training stints at the U.S. partner universities.
During those back and forth visits, the Americans and North Koreans together designed project parameters that would meet North Korea’s need for increased dairy production.
They traveled together around the DPRK, to find the most suitable site for what would become the North’s largest goat farm.
That turned out to be 10,000 acres close to the DMZ, and the American experts have since spent a lot of time in that area of great military sensitivity.
The North Korean and U.S. experts concluded the Nubian goat could not tolerate the North’s harsh winters. They decided to develop a new breed of goat in the DPRK, inseminating the North’s hardy native goats with semen from less hardy but more productive Nubians. GRS sent that semen from the United States.
GRS also provided alfalfa seed, so the farm could produce its own feed for the goats, and the equipment needed for a winter feed barn. The farmers provided the material for the barn and the labor to build it.
GRS also imported a dairy from Israel to process the goat milk into cheese and yogurt for schoolchildren. GRS provided the equipment, as well as technical support on installation and operation. North Korean engineers in the community did all assembly and follow-on work. “Our engineers were impressed by the technical competence of their North Korean counterparts,” Springs said.
GRS complies fully with U.S. sanctions against the DPRK, and Springs asked James Min, an Ohio international trade lawyer and GRS board member, to vet everything sent to the North for the goat project. Min is Korean-American, but the reason Springs recruited him was his expertise on sanctions law and enforcement. As it turned out, the main line moving the goat milk through the facility, a two-inch stainless steel pipe, was determined to be dual-use and thereby in violation of U.S. law—with potentially criminal penalties. So GRS asked the Israeli manufacturer to redesign the dairy and use a 1.5-inch stainless steel pipe instead. “Even an NGO needs a good international trade lawyer to do development projects in North Korea,” Springs says.
When GRS and the North Koreans finished the discussion on project parameters, Springs recalls, “the North Koreans hemmed a little and said, ‘You haven’t brought up monitoring. Everyone we work with wants to know about monitoring.’”
GRS funds nearly all its projects—including all of the projects discussed in this article—from private contributions. Springs said GRS must show its donors that projects assist beneficiaries as envisioned.
“In this project, we had two groups of beneficiaries: the goats and the schoolchildren,” Springs told me.
GRS figured that if the semen didn’t get to the goats, there wouldn’t be new goats. If the feed grain didn’t get to the goats, there would be dead goats. “We travel to the community served by the goat farm on a regular basis, to see how the project is going,” Springs told me. “We go to the schools. We know how thin the children were before the project started. We know what they look like now. We can see the impact of this program, on an ongoing basis.”
Springs told his North Korean counterparts that monitoring was built into the project, in the form of live goats and healthier children. “So we said, basically, we trust you to do what you’ve told us you want to do, and we’ll be able to tell our donors we’re seeing healthy goats and healthier children. It was an answer that worked for everybody, including our donors.”
The farm started with 1,500 goats, provided by the North Koreans. Only 800 survived the first winter. By the second year, the farmers were wintering the goats in barns they’d built and feeding them grain from GRS-provided seed. The number grew to 3,000. As the breed improved with the goat semen sent by GRS, dairy production for children’s meals quadrupled to 600 tons a year. GRS continues to visit the project a couple of times a year but hasn’t provided support since 2008; the project has become self-sustaining.
A hallmark of GRS projects is that the workers involved receive some additional benefit from the success of the project. At the dairy, production workers can keep 10 percent of the output for personal use. Workers sometimes sell those dairy products at markets in the countryside. Springs sees that as incentive to maximize production.
Springs emphasizes that every GRS project is a partnership. In the goat project, the North Koreans provided land, labor, and buildings, including all the materials needed to erect the structures. GRS provided goat semen, seed for feed, milking and dairy processing equipment, and technical advice. “If each side contributes equally,” Springs maintains, “each side has equal equity in success. I can’t overstate the importance of that.”
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Dan Jones is GRS’s chairman of the board. Chancellor of the University of Mississippi and past president of the American Heart Association, Jones taught medicine in South Korea in the 1980s where he learned Korean and met Rob Springs.
A physician specializing in hypertension, Jones first went to Pyongyang in 1995, to train North Korean doctors in heart disease prevention. During an outing to a Pyongyang park, Jones saw a group of young medical students accompanied by a professor. In Korean, Jones introduced himself to the professor and explained he was an American medical school professor and that heart disease was the number one health problem in the United States. How big a problem was heart disease in the DPRK? Jones asked.
Jones said the professor’s careful response—“Under the guidance of our Dear Leader, we have eliminated heart disease from our country”—didn’t surprise him. “He must have been shocked to meet a Korean-speaking American out in a Pyongyang park who identified himself as a fellow professor of medicine,” Jones said. “So he reacted cautiously.”
Jones realized then, as he has many times since, that given the profound mistrust each side has about the other, “both are extremely cautious in early meetings. Each side is careful and wants to shape the encounter.”
“When North Koreans came to our medical center at the University of Mississippi for the first time,” Jones said, “we were very guarded about what we said and showed them. We wanted them to see only the best we had. When we went to Pyongyang in those early visits, we saw only their showcase projects.”
“With the passage of time, the relationship has entirely changed,” Jones said. “When we get together, we get right to the problems we need to deal with as physicians.”
Jones recalls his earliest work in North Korea, before he began working with GRS, as “‘This is what we can do for you.’ We came up with a project we thought they needed, and offered it to them.”
As GRS built up its medical programs, Jones began contributing as a senior adviser. The project starting place became, what kind of project are you interested in?
An early request, Jones said, was unexpected. And it caused him some unease.
“What they wanted was training in laparoscopic surgery,” Jones recalled. “The Koreans told us they’d understood that procedure cut patient recovery time and improved outcomes. They said they wanted their patients to have the benefit of that.”
Those benefits are real, Jones told me, but he remembers thinking to himself, “This is an advanced technique that may not be appropriate for the North. It requires a very high skill level, and even if we could train some surgeons to do it, they would have trouble replicating the training in their own country.”
Through discussions with North Korea’s health ministry and ministry of education, GRS established a partnership with the Pyongyang National Medical University.
In 2002, six months after the Koreans made their first request, GRS brought a team of North Korean doctors for three months of training to the University of Mississippi Medical School (where Jones served as Dean), the University of Alabama-Birmingham School of Medicine, and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York.
Two U.S. surgeons then went to Pyongyang for a month to train North Korean surgeons and nurses. That training included pre-operative preparation, joint operations on patients, and post-operative recovery.
The North Koreans then returned for a month to the University of Mississippi for advanced training. GRS surgeons and engineers made three more training trips to North Korea.
Despite Jones’ initial misgivings, the impetus to scale up the training came from the North Koreans themselves.
“This project is now self-sustaining,” Jones said. “Our doctors visit the North about once a year, and we see North Koreans we haven’t trained doing the procedures we trained their teachers in, and they’ve mastered the techniques.” At this point, 150 North Korean surgeons have been trained in laparoscopy, and they now perform 20,000 procedures a year.
Jones told me the North Korean physicians he’s worked with have excellent skills but work in a resource-poor environment—which pushes them to substitute ingenuity for technology. He explained training in laparoscopic surgery is quite expensive, in part because of the equipment. In the United States, medical students use a laparoscopic surgery simulator, a high-priced piece of equipment. Part of what the simulator does is impose a barrier between hands and eyes, so surgeons learn to follow their hand movements magnified on a monitor, rather than looking directly at their hands. In North Korea, students use a simple box, with high-resolution cameras inside it, in place of the simulator. “They are able to master the technique using this much cheaper solution,” Jones said.
* * *
GRS’s most complex undertaking in North Korea was bringing the Sons of Jubal chorus to perform at an international arts festival in April 2012, marking the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday. The chorus, 150 Baptist ministers and educators from Georgia, landed in Pyongyang the day after what the North declared was an unsuccessful satellite launch, widely seen in the United States as a missile test. Given the sour political mood between the two countries, chorus members didn’t know what kind of welcome they would receive.
When the chorus music director, Dr. Jon Duncan of Atlanta, returned to the United States, he was asked, “You were there to sing as a Christian group in a communist country. Were there any restrictions on what you could sing?”
The short answer was no, but the longer answer—still no—is more interesting.
Rob Springs and Jon Duncan had made an advance trip to Pyongyang in January 2012, to discuss the chorus’ visit and scout performance locations.
The North Korean officials organizing the festival asked Duncan about the music the chorus would perform.
Duncan said his traditional program was a mix of classical music, popular Broadway tunes, and songs of faith. The chorus had also worked hard to learn songs in Korean and planned to sing those as well.
“What kinds of songs of faith?” the North Koreans asked.
Duncan explained these would be chosen for their theme of reconciliation—“Amazing Grace,” “Thou, O Lord” from Psalm 3, and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“Songs of faith,” the North Koreans said, “could be a problem.”
So when the Sons of Jubal arrived in Pyongyang in April 2012 they weren’t sure what program they would actually perform.
Immediately upon the chorus’ arrival, officials from the DPRK’s Ministry of Culture met with Duncan. “Please do your full program,” they told Duncan, “including your songs of faith.”
The chorus included early in its program a song known to every North Korean, “Red Sky of Steel Refined.” The group sang the lyrics both in English and in Korean, and the audience response was thunderous.
“Red Sky” tells of a father’s love for his people, and for North Koreans the father in question is Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s first and longest-serving leader. But for the members of the chorus, Duncan told me, the lyrics told of God’s love for His children. “That’s the thing about music. It’s universal, because it’s open to interpretation.”
“We connected to the audience with that song,” said Duncan, “because we had clearly worked so hard on something that had a particular meaning for our listeners. We sang it in their own language. And the audience responded in the way that touches the hearts of musicians everywhere.”
The Korean audience gave the same thunderous response to the song that followed “Red Sky,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“When we introduced ‘Battle Hymn,’ our Korean announcer explained the significance of that song in American history—that it had been written during our Civil War, that its singing during the war transcended North and South because it had been sung so widely on both sides even as the war raged on,” Duncan said. “The audience connected to it in a way that Americans may have during our Civil War.” (The lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written by Julia Ward Howe, first appeared in The Atlantic , February 1862, on the front page.)
But perhaps most surprising of all, Duncan continued, “When we sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ the audience, which included many North Korean musicians, hummed along.”
The North Koreans unexpectedly asked the Americans to give the same program in the same hall the next evening.
The Sons of Jubal stayed in the DPRK for almost a week, and, in addition to performances at various venues around Pyongyang, traveled south to the DMZ, approaching it from the North Korean side. The chorus members were taken to a room their North Korean guide called the exchange room—half in North Korea, half in the South, a thin black line down the middle to separate the two sides. It was called the exchange room, they were told, because officials would exchange bodies there.
“Our North Korean guide was a soldier in uniform,” Duncan said. “As he took us to the DMZ line, he gave us a stern lecture about American imperialism, American aggression, that he said the United States had committed against North Korea and its people. ‘We held off the American invasion,’ the solider told us. He was very severe. His presentation was difficult for all of us to listen to, but especially for the oldest member of our group, who had been in the Korean War.”
The Americans listened in silence.
“When the soldier finished, someone in the group asked him to take our pictures,” Duncan continued. “Then, he got in the pictures. We started talking. We smiled. He smiled. And the whole mood changed. Before we left, the soldier in uniform—the same guy—asked us to sing the Star Spangled Banner—on the North Korean side of the DMZ!”
* * *
Rob Springs had asked James Min, the Ohio international trade lawyer, to accompany the Sons of Jubal to North Korea.
After the group arrived in Pyongyang, the North Koreans told Springs that GRS could send one person to see the April 15, 2012, military parade in Kim Il Sung Square on the centenary of the late president’s birth. Springs sent Min, who wound up standing not far from the DPRK’s newly installed leader, Kim Jong Un, Kim Il Sung’s grandson.
The April 15 parade is the North’s showcase event of its military strength. And as Min watched the procession of soldiers and their equipment, for the first time he had some understanding of the North’s focus on its military. “It wasn’t just the uniforms and hardware. More, it was the pride of the crowds watching their military on parade.”
That focus, Min considered, was the result of Korea’s history of being on the wrong end of foreign invasions over the millennia, of being a small country surrounded by larger, more powerful countries. And Min said he understood the determination not to be invaded again.
“Dealing with difficult relationships, the first step to resolution is understanding,” the Ohio lawyer said. “You can never get progress if you don’t understand where the other party is coming from, the factors that motivate or threaten them.”
“I don’t agree with the North’s military policies and priorities. But that day, I got a sense of how they see the world, and why they see it that way.”
“Until you reach that point of understanding—it’s not a question of agreeing—you’re stuck in relationship dysfunction that neither side can get past.”
Min first met a North Korean when he was a senior at Johns Hopkins in the early 1990s. Writing a paper on the politics of the Korean Peninsula, he went to New York to interview diplomats at the DPRK U.N. Mission. He recalls both he and the North Korean officials were wary and cautious in dealing with one another. “Eventually, though, you realize you’re just dealing with other human beings.”
In 2006, Min worked with GRS to offer a one-week course in Beijing on American English for nine English professors from the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. Min taught legal concepts and terminology. In his section on legal education, the professors asked questions about U.S. licensing practices. When he taught international trade law, they asked about the specialized vocabulary of contracts. When he gave an overview of the U.S. judicial system, one professor asked about the difference between a lawyer and a lobbyist.
Min sat in the back of the room when another instructor presented a different module, this time to a group of North Korean students. Each student had a workstation, with Internet access, and Min could see one young student was doing Google searches on NBA scores, while another was downloading a Britney Spears MP3 file. “That’s exactly what students in the U.S. would be doing,” he recalled thinking.
Min says being a Korean-American can add a layer of sensitivity in dealing with North Koreans. There are roughly as many Korean-Americans living in the U.S. as Koreans live in Pyongyang, and some Korean-Americans are strongly anti-North Korean.
So for Korean-Americans, developing relationships with North Koreans can take a little longer, as they try to figure out your point of view, Min told me. “Then it becomes like any relationship. In fact, with shared language and cultural understanding, it may actually be easier for me. Both sides want to know, Can I trust you? Can we work together?”
Min recalled an incident during an earlier trip to Pyongyang that unexpectedly left him “crying on the inside” at Korea’s continuing division into South and North. During a free afternoon in Pyongyang, his hosts took Min and other visiting Americans to a karaoke bar. Min had been an exchange student in Moscow and he sang “Winds of Change” by Scorpion, a song about glasnost and the opening of the former Soviet Union. The North Koreans listened politely. But when he sang his next song, “Arirang,” which he called “a traditional Korean song widely sung throughout the Korean peninsula as a symbol of resistance against Japan’s colonization in the early 20th century,” the North Koreans in the room got up and joined in. “My North Korean host and I had our arms around each other as we sang together. At that moment, the barrier between Korean-American and North Korean disappeared.”
Listening to Duncan and Min talk about songs of reconciliation, I asked Springs what GRS’s goal of reconciliation with the North meant to him personally. “Reconciliation means my children can freely be friends with their children. North Korea would become a normal part of the international community. One in three North Korean children wouldn’t be malnourished.”
Reconciliation is important for the United States, too, Springs maintains.
When President Clinton visited the DMZ in 1994, he called it the “scariest place on earth.”
Springs says it’s just as dangerous today. “With reconciliation, we wouldn’t be facing a constant threat in Northeast Asia. We would be able to use our own resources more wisely to help our own people.”
Springs makes clear he has no hand in the nuclear and missile issues on the U.S. national security agenda. “That’s between governments.” But, he says, as Americans travel and work in North Korea, and North Koreans come to the U.S. for training, these steps can build mutual understanding and lead to better outcomes.
Americans often ask Springs how he can work within North Korea’s brutal system, how he squares his work with the regime’s human rights abuses. “I care deeply about human rights,” he told me. “Given that I’m a visitor to the DPRK, I never expected to be in a position to witness brutality or human rights abuses there, and I never have. It’s simply outside my experience, so I can’t usefully add anything to the ongoing discussion about these serious questions. Our focus is on human security. And the fact is, our success in increasing food production inside the North, and improving access to health care and education there, comes from working cooperatively with our North Korean counterparts.”
Springs says he’s never knowingly met a member of North Korea’s—or, for that matter, America’s—political or security leadership: “I’ve met the minister of culture a couple of times, but aside from that, I have no access to the DPRK’s senior leadership.”
But Springs says GRS’s work is about change—change in the North, including modernization in health and agriculture, and change in the relationship between the United States and the North—“and that means building positive relationships with key change agents in the DPRK.”
In line with GRS program priorities, the North Koreans GRS does work with are those who administer the policies set by the senior leadership—central and local government officials, farm managers, educators, and health professionals. Springs says his counterparts generally are well-trained and motivated but lack the resources they need to do their jobs. “The people we work with want a better future for their country.” And he said GRS makes a particular effort “to engage the DPRK young people, whenever we have opportunity, in order to share our culture, values, and to educate them on who America and Americans really are.”
When Springs reads about North Korea in the international press, he told me he often feels like he’s reading about life on some alien planet, a place where nothing works, and where robotic people live in a joyless, treeless moonscape.
He says the reality is more complicated. Pyongyang has changed over the 15 years he’s been traveling there. North Koreans take pride in their architecture; in newer sections of the city, pastel-colored buildings rise 40 stories and more. Traffic moves in the wide avenues, increasingly in late-model passenger cars made in North Korea under license from Fiat. Residents are well-dressed and have the look of people with places to go. While there’s energy in their movement, the people themselves are smaller and thinner than South Koreans, the result of long-term food shortages—a hardship Springs says appears to be shared at least to some degree among the populace in urban and rural areas.
While many western North Korea watchers maintain the elite is concentrated in Pyongyang while the rest of the country suffers, Springs points out that nearly everyone he’s met in the capital has relatives—parents, siblings, children—who live in other parts of the country. And when he’s in the countryside, residents often tell him they have family in the capital.
Springs says life in the countryside is definitely harder than in the capital, akin to the gap in living standards between rural and urban areas in many countries. Work in the countryside is more likely to involve manual labor, like farming, as opposed to office work. The clothing is functional, as opposed to the fashion in Pyongyang. Some highly educated people Springs has worked with in the countryside say they’d rather live outside of Pyongyang because the air is cleaner and their houses are bigger. They also say it’s easier to grow their own food to supplement their rations, though intervals between government-provided rations may be longer.
Springs also questions press reports that the North’s leadership tries to convince the North Korean people they are living in a socialist paradise. “People know they are hungry and their children are hungry. They tell us this is the most difficult time since the period after the Korean War. What the North Korean media does is to blame that on the U.S. I couldn’t say whether everyone believes that or not. But while North Koreans are polite to us up front as individuals, and over time we can develop friendships, anti-American feeling is pretty deep.”
Springs said that given North Korea’s mistrust of the United States, the first time GRS goes into a new community the local people are suspicious. “There is always fear about working with us. They won’t talk to us. We have to overcome that. The fact we keep going back to the same communities on a long-term basis, and always have Korean speakers on our side, has helped us a lot.”
The GRS experience is that over time, attitudes change. “It takes a couple of years, but we ultimately develop working relationships and friendships with the people we work with. And North Korean officials, from the central and local governments, help us develop relationships in the community.”
In Pyongyang, GRS visitors stay in international hotels or guest houses reserved for foreigners. But much of their time is spent in the countryside, scouting or working on projects, and they stay in traditional Korean inns and hotels, often alongside North Korean travelers. Meals generally are at the project sites, farms or health clinics, and the Americans eat with the North Koreans working on the projects.
That social time, Springs says, is key to building relationships that enable GRS to work effectively over the long term in the North. “It starts as shop talk, the problems that come up in project execution, but then we start talking about other things. We avoid politics. But we talk about everything else—sports, family, what’s going on in people’s lives. The young people tell us about the kind of person they want to marry—honest, sincere, sense of humor. Close your eyes, you could be talking to an American kid. One official told me he was worried about his son, who he said was drinking too much. That made me start talking about my father in law’s drinking problem. A high school kid asked me about gun violence in the U.S. I asked him why he asked. He said he’d seen a story about it on the Discovery Channel.”
Springs is taken with the beauty of many areas of the country. North Korea is about 80 percent mountainous, 20 percent arable land. The population is concentrated in the cities, not the countryside. Springs has traveled in all 10 provinces and visited 10 national parks. He says North Koreans acknowledge deforestation near populated areas is a serious problem. They know the short-term gain in food production is offset by soil erosion and flooding—but people are desperate for food and fuel, so they clear the mountains. Closer to the DMZ, deforestation is generally linked to military preparedness. But in the less-populated areas north and east of Pyongyang, Springs says the mountains are heavily forested and magnificent.
* * *
Bringing North Korea’s National Symphony Orchestra to the United States tops Springs’ agenda of unfinished business.
GRS spent three years arranging a U.S. concert tour. The National Symphony Orchestra was to have played at Lincoln Center in April 2012—the New York Philharmonic had visited Pyongyang in February 2008. But a month before the planned April visit, Pyongyang announced its satellite launch and U.S. visas were not issued for the musicians.
“The symphony is the national pride of the country—more than the monuments, the architecture,” Springs explains. “Music and artistic ability are especially honored and respected in Korean culture. And the Symphony represents the best of their country, something the people are particularly proud of. Because of the importance of the symphony to the North Korean people, its visit would represent much more than musical cultural exchange. It would make other things possible.”
* * *
In Rob Springs’ home office is a display case containing two bronze stars with valor, a row of battle citations, and three purple hearts–earned with wounds from a bayonet in close quarters combat, gunshot, and grenade—medals awarded his father, Robert Springs Sr., during the Korean War.
On June 25, 1950, Corporal Springs sat in an airport in Japan, discharge papers in hand, waiting for the flight back home.
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army rolled across South Korea.
The U.S. Army tore up Springs Sr.’s discharge papers—literally—and he and his unit were sent to Pusan, South Korea, to help repel the North Korean invasion. As an Army Air Corps forward observer, Springs Sr. went north with his unit all the way to the Chinese border, watched the Chinese Peoples Volunteers cross the Yalu River in support of the North Korean Army, and, under the Chinese onslaught, cut off from his unit and alone, made his way back down the Korean Peninsula to rejoin the U.N. forces.
Thirty years later, when the South Korean government invited him back to commemorate his sacrifice and contributions, the father said to his 20-year- old son, Rob, “I don’t ever want to see the place again. You go.”
Rob Springs had aspired to wrestle in the 1980 Olympics. An injury ended those hopes, and he was struggling. Robert Springs Sr. thought the trip to Korea might do his son some good. As it turned out, Rob Springs loved Korea and wound up staying a decade, learning the language, and later earning a doctorate in traditional Korean culture.
Springs often thinks of his father’s hope—after his bitter experience during the Korean War—that the U.S. and North would reconcile in his lifetime.
On a wall of Springs’ bedroom is a painting of Don Quixote, a nod to the mission to which the Arizona rancher has committed himself.
Some experts on the DPRK commend NGOs such as GRS for the help they’ve provided individuals and communities, but question whether those efforts could be a significant factor in changing the U.S.-DPRK relationship.
Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar on North Korea at the American Enterprise Institute, has supported technical assistance for the North in areas GRS works in such as education, agriculture, and health. But he said belief that NGO activities with the North could encourage reconciliation at the national level reflects “a certain naiveté.” The problem, Eberstadt told me, “is that while the NGOs may have limited success in interactions with individual North Koreans, they operate under formidable constraints. And globally, U.S. assistance programs generally haven’t changed opinions of the U.S. So the NGOs should keep their expectations low. They must be open to declaring their initiatives a failure.”
Others aren’t so sure. Dr. Norman Neureiter, vice president of Texas Instruments Asia and head of the international security program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has visited North Korea three times. Neureiter says, “What Springs has done over the last 15 years challenges the view most of us have about North Korea. Springs speaks Korean. He travels all over North Korea. He brings other Americans there. When he can get the visas, he brings North Koreans here. They don’t hide the poverty from him. The people he works with, at least a lot of them, seem to be well-trained and hard-working. What I’ve seen of his work there leads me to conclude it is in our own interest to rethink our assumptions, what we think we know, about the place.”
Springs, who’s spent 15 years working in an environment he will simply characterize as “difficult,” says the real issue is the willingness of both sides to make tough choices. “We’re in a bad place now because of misjudgments on both sides. People don’t recognize how bad it could get. I look at that display case on my wall and think about my father’s lifetime of pain, results of a war we didn’t expect and had no plan to become involved in. We still have a better way forward now.
“Naiveté,” says the Arizona rancher with his typical reserve, “is the refusal to see all that.”
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