Published on 11/13/03

North Korean delegation helps restart ag project

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

ATHENS, Ga. -- After a three-day forum on North Korean and U.S. nuclear challenges, North Korean policy framers met with University of Georgia scientists and officials on lighter topic: jump-starting a cooperative agricultural project that's been stalled for two years.

The project began in 1999 with reciprocal visits between scientists at the Academy of Agricultural Sciences in North Korea and the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Through those visits, scientists from each country assessed areas of mutual interest and settled on three: poultry, biotechnology and sweet potatoes.

Project on hold

However, events in both countries, including Sept. 11, moved the project to a back burner.

"Since June 2001 when the delegation last visited, we have not had an exchange," said Stanley Kays, a UGA horticulturist specializing in sweet potatoes. "We are eager to move the process along. Our college would like to see an exchange of ideas and technologies."

The North Koreans included Jo Sung Ju, Kim Myong Gil and Sim Il Gang of the Korean Institute of Disarmament and Peace; Han Song-Ryol, North Korean ambassador to the United Nations; and Sin Song Chol of the U.N. mission. They are policy makers, not scientists. But they agreed to discuss the project, which everyone agreed was a much easier subject than nuclear arms.

Simple goal

"In agriculture, we are idealists," said UGA poultry scientist Nick Dale, who has participated in the project since the beginning. "All we have to do is feed people. It's not controversial."

The North Korean delegates sampled a sweet potato variety Kays developed that tastes like white potatoes but has the higher yields and nutrients of sweet potatoes. They then toured the UGA Center for Applied Genetic Technologies, a state-of-the-art facility that brings together diverse expertise and resources in plant and animal genomics.

During an informal discussion that followed, Ed Kanemasu, director of the UGA office of international agriculture, proposed to get the joint project moving again by inviting several North Korean scientists to come to UGA.

New start

"We have the funds to invite several agricultural scientists to come here long enough to gain actual experience in technologies of interest to them," he said.

The North Korean delegation was receptive.

"I have a message from Pyongyang," ambassador Han said. "We want to advance the exchange of technology (in agriculture) and enhance our productivity. Georgia is known in DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) for agriculture. We can set up a relatively short project in the short term and then expand to a larger joint research project."

Han Park, director of the UGA Center for Global Issues, organized the North Koreans' visit this week. He has participated in the joint agricultural project from the beginning. Park encouraged both sides to take action to get the project moving again.

"I would like to remind us of a Korean saying," he said. "'Starting is halfway done.'"

After the discussions were complete, Kanemasu said both Ambassador Han and Park felt the talk went very well. "Dr. Park felt that the stalemate has been broken," he said, "and that we should be able to move forward."

(Cat Holmes is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.