UPDATE: Culture clash when North Koreans want to talk business and US general has other ideas
By Michael Rank
It was a clash of cultures, an accident waiting to happen, when the four-star United States general and his entourage of American business leaders came to Pyongyang to discuss security issues and the North Koreans wanted to talk business.
The North Koreans had assumed the general and his colleagues wanted to talk about investing in their isolated country, and were dumbfounded to discover that was one thing the visitors had absolutely no intention of discussing.
It wasn’t entirely the North Koreans’ fault – retired Air Force General Charles “Chuck” Boyd and his pals were from a high-powered Washington-based think tank called Business Executives for National Security (BENS), so business is definitely part of their brief – but not when it comes to North Korea.
The North Korean ministers whom Boyd met made no attempt to hide their shock when they discovered that the visitors had not come with thoughts of investing a handful of dollars at least in their country, even if it is under international sanctions, and that they were there to discuss the nuclear issue instead.
“I think they had a little bit of a misunderstanding about the nature of our objective, ” Boyd told North Korean Economy Watch in a telephone interview.
“I think they believed that we came with business leaders who were interested in investing in North Korea, and of course that we had to make that clear to them right from the outset that nobody [in the BENS delegation] had any intention whatsoever of making any investments in North Korea and in fact could not” due to international sanctions.
“They were not particularly pleased to hear that. They wanted to talk about investments, they didn’t want to talk about the linkage of those investments to a resolution of the nuclear issue,” said Boyd, who has been president and chief executive officer of BENS since 2002 and steps down at the end of the year.
“There were some tense moments as we worked our way through that, but i think there was clarity in everybody’s minds when we left” that the group had come not to discuss investment but “in a larger context of trying to talk about the benefits of leaving their isolation and entering into the globalised world.”
Boyd said the tone of the conversations he held with North Korean officials “varied a bit…some were softer in their argumentation, some were harsher. I suppose the tone of the meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs [Pak Ui-chun] was really quite warm.”
Kim Yong-nam, president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, told him how threatened North Korea felt by its neighbours. “To the extent that I could I think I tried to relieve him of some of his anxiety about the external threats to the country,” Boyd said. He told Kim that the division of the Korean peninsula was the fault of the Soviet Union, not the United States, and he hoped a Russian would attend their next meeting in order to underline this fact. “I think at the end of it we parted on pretty good terms,” Boyd said of his meeting with Kim, who is often reckoned to rank number two in the North Korean hierarchy after Kim Jung Il.
The delegation also included Ross Perot Jr, chairman of the board, Perot Systems Corp, Maurice Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co, Inc, and Boyd’s wife Dr Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Boyd said BENS had tried to arrange a visit to North Korea for several years, and after being rebuffed numerous times “almost out of the blue they contacted us and issued an invitation.”
He acknowledged that his visit last week had not achieved any meeting of minds between the US and North Korea, but noted: “Progress comes about in tiny little steps from a broad front, and it may be that we had some tiny bit of influence. And if we didn’t is the world worse off for having gone there? I don’t think so.”
The North Koreans were “certainly left with [an impression of] the firmness with which the private sector is in support of the need for resolving the nuclear issue,” he added.
Boyd was a combat pilot in Vietnam and survived 2,488 days as a prisoner of war. He is the only POW from the Vietnam war to become a four-star general. He will be succeeded at BENS from January 1 by former US Army General Montgomery C. Meigs.
The official North Korean news agency KCNA, which rarely lets the facts get in the way of a good story, reported that the BENS group “had an exhaustive discussion with officials in the economic field of the DPRK on the issues arising in creating environment for investment.”
ORIGINAL POST: According to Yonhap:
The six-member delegation from the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), led by Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, had traveled to Pyongyang on a mission to explore future opportunities for collaborative research activities in various fields.
The U.S. team “left here for home by air on Tuesday after discussing the matter of cooperation and exchange in the field of scientific research,” the Korean Central News Agency said. It gave no further information.
Agre, director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute and president of the AAAS, said earlier that his delegation would meet with scientists, university and science policy officials in the North. He also planned to give a lecture for North Korean officials and students at the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang.
While in Pongyang Agre suppsedly gave a lecture at Kimchaek University of Technology. According to Yonhap:
The broadcast aired by the non-profit corporation said Agre and other U.S. scientists will visit the Kimchaek University of Technology to give his lecture and hold talks with representatives from North Korean academia to discuss ways to advance bilateral scientific cooperation
Agre is a medical doctor and molecular biologist who was awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of aquaporins. He is currently the chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Also in the Yonhap story:
Another U.S. delegation visiting North Korea, consisting of businessmen, met with the North’s Vice Premier Ro Tu-chol on Tuesday, state media said in a one-sentence dispatch. The team from the Business Executives for National Security (BENS), a non-partisan Washington-based organization led by Charles Boyd, a retired U.S. Air Force four-star general, arrived in Pyongyang a day earlier.
Michael Rank contacted BENS and received the following statement:
Regarding the North Korea trip: Following initial contact several years ago, the North Korean government recently invited a small group from Business Executives for National Security (BENS) to visit North Korea. BENS is a not-for-profit group of business executives with an interest in national security and foreign policy issues. BENS is not a trade organization.
The group hopes to learn first-hand the views of government officials in North Korea. The trip is solely for educational purposes and was coordinated with appropriate U.S. government agencies. The traveling party is now in North Korea. The travelers are: BENS President and Chief Executives Charles Boyd, Maurice Greenberg (Chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co., Inc.) Corinne Greenberg, Ross Perot Jr. (Chairman of the Board, Perot Systems Corp.) Mark Newman (Chairman and CEO, DRS Technologies, Inc.), BENS Board Chairman Joe Robert and Dr. Jessica Mathews. Greenberg, Perot, and Newman are also board members of BENS. Ms. Mathews is President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Charles Boyd’s wife. Reggie Gibbs, a BENS staff member is accompanying the group. Further details about the trip will be available when the group returns next week.
UPDATE 1: According to the Joong Ang Daily:
[Stuart Thorson, professor of political science and international relations at Syracuse University] spent five days in the North Korean capital, meeting with faculty members at the Kim Chaek University of Technology and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and officials from the State Academy of Sciences. Kim Chaek University is the school that has maintained cooperation with Syracuse since 2001. The delegation included Peter C. Agre, the 2003 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. […]
Thorson said the Americans talked with North Korean scientists on issues such as developing young scientists and bringing more women into the field. The faculty at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology gave presentations on their research work. “We were quite impressed by it, especially since the level of their physical equipment is below what we have [in South Korea] and in the United States,” Thorson said.
The faculty “responded very well” to the Americans’ presence, he said.
“We were all delighted to have the young scientists [in North Korea] talking with us about their research,” he said. “A lot of [science] has been just kind of old people talking to old people about what they’d like to have happened. There were actually young people talking about what they’re really doing.”
The unlikely science partnership between the United States and North Korea dates back to 2001. With the help of Donald Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea serving then as head of Korea Society, Syracuse University contacted the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York. Often called the “New York channel,” the North Korean UN mission links the United States and North Korea.
Thorson said his previous experience in dealing with China helped him get started with North Korea.
“I had worked on a similar collaboration with China in the 1990s, so we were comfortable working with countries whose political system was very different than our own,” the professor said.
Thorson added that in working with China, he learned that science and technology are “very much based on shared protocols.”
“That helps us build trust,” he said. “As we share things in common, then I think we can begin to talk about other things sometimes, or perhaps even more importantly, people who talk to us can learn and begin to be more comfortable.
“This is especially important, in my view, to political science regarding North Korea and the United States, where in both countries, the other has been demonized and viewed as something other than a real place with real people,” Thorson added.
Syracuse found its partner in the Kim Chaek University of Technology. They’ve since cooperated in building a digital library at Kim Chaek in 2006, and Syracuse has helped North Korean students at the International Collegiate Programming Contest, run by the Association for Computing Machinery.
Their partnership led to the founding of the U.S.-DPRK [North Korea] Scientific Engagement Consortium in 2007. It’s made up of the U.S. Civilian Research & Development Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Syracuse University and the Korea Society.
Thorson pointed to the digital library as an example of a positive outcome for the U.S.-North Korea science exchange. When the New York Philharmonic visited Pyongyang in 2008, some accompanying journalists went to the library and even accessed their Facebook pages from computers there.
Though Thorson realizes U.S.-North Korea relations do have an impact on science exchanges, he also thinks the worse the situation, the more such non-traditional diplomacy becomes necessary.
“My impression is that as relations get worse between the two countries, both countries realize that these informal channels are all the more important,” Thorson said. “It’s all the more reason to keep at science diplomacy with North Korea. The more difficult the problem, the more effort it takes to try to resolve that.
“If it were easy, it wouldn’t be much fun,” he said. “It’s frustrating sometimes. It’s also rewarding.”
UPDATE 2: According to the Joong Ang Daily:
The Business Executives for National Security (BENS) is an American nonprofit organization established in 1982 by American entrepreneurs whose top concern is national security. Eight BENS members recently visited North Korea, led by the organization’s current president, former Air Force Gen. Charles G. Boyd. The U.S. delegation included AIG’s former CEO Maurice Greenberg, Chairman of DRS Technologies Mark Newman and Chairman of the Board of Perot Systems Henry Ross Perot, Jr.
They are said to have visited the North at the invitation of North Korean authorities, which have been in contact with BENS for several years. It is likely a coincidence that they visited Pyongyang after U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth’s visit to the North two weeks ago.
Nevertheless, we are paying special attention to their behavior because BENS helped abolish nuclear weapons in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At that time, the U.S. removed more than 7,000 nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. In return, the CIS countries were promised safety, economic incentives and incorporation into Western society, in accordance with the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CRT) in 1991.
Companies under the control of BENS were responsible for removing and destroying the weapons and other nuclear materials, after securing a commercial contract with the U.S. government.
The resumption of the six-party talks is still clouded with difficulties, but if North Korea decides to give up its nuclear weapons, there is a high possibility that the U.S. companies will spearhead their removal.