Journalists accompanying the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to Pyongyang in February 2007 had a surprise when they were given a tour of the library at North Korea's MIT, the Kim Chaek University of Technology: Computers there were hooked up to the Internet.
Some quickly logged on to send greetings from the sequestered country — formally known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea but famously dubbed the Hermit Kingdom — from updated Facebook pages.
As one of the world's least plugged-in countries, the connection proved be something of a Potemkin moment, but not nearly as much as it would have been a few years earlier. That's thanks in part to New York's Syracuse University, which has worked with Kim Chaek for several years on information technology, including development of its first digital library.
Diplomacy through science
Americans say the decision to rely on open-source software for the library, rather than developing proprietary software to conform better with North Korea's national ideology of self-reliance, or juche, is a strong indication of Pyongyang's vision for a more globally integrated future.
It also shows a confidence, they say, that North Korea has something to contribute and the importance they attach to educational exchanges with foreign experts, which at the same time some in the West perceive as diplomacy through science.
"The North Koreans are not like those people living in the hills of Pakistan, they actually want a relationship with us, I'm firmly convinced of that," says Frederick Carriere, executive director of the New York City-based Korea Society. The society promotes ties between the U.S. and Korea — both halves of that proud, if prickly, peninsula.
"They want to show that they have skills to the outside the world; they are proud of what they know," he adds, echoing comments others, such as Siegfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Lab, have said about North Korea's nuclear program.
When Syracuse first suggested an exchange in 2001, professors were invited the very next day to come to the North Korean mission to the United Nations, which functions as the de facto embassy in the United States.
Such alacrity did not surprise Carriere, who brokered the introduction and was with the Fulbright Program in South Korea for 15 years. That educational program — sponsored by the U.S. State Department — provided critical support for South Korea's rapid growth.
Korea has long been important to Syracuse, which graduated its first Korean students in the 1930s and which still sees a sizable number of students from the South, many drawn by its Maxwell School of Public Affairs.
The current program started in 2001 with a boost from the Henry Luce Foundation, and, having spent about $1 million since then, it currently sponsors about 15 to 20 people from the Syracuse side, five of them core researchers from Maxwell and its engineering and IT schools. Exchanges usually run from one to five weeks.
The North understands that similar initiatives are vital to it catching up, Carriere said, and it can do this fastest through information technology. In this, Pyongyang is applying that most quintessential Korean characteristic: diligence.
Two years after first entering a team in the International Collegiate Programming Contest (an intercollegiate competition run by the Association of Computing Machinery), its team made it in to the finals. And that was with a hand tied behind its back: Without unrestricted Internet access, North Korea's students either had to practice offline or within an expanding intranet.
Getting to that level was one flower from a seven-year educational campaign to ramp up computing skills that now sees elite schools in Pyongyang and other large cities drilling elementary students in Pascal and other computer languages.
"In schools for the gifted and college computer majors nationwide, a new generation of software developers is being nurtured," reports the Daily NK, a South Korean Web site that promotes itself as the hub of news about North Korea.
That has resulted in a fledgling software industry, with a growing reputation as a reliable, low-cost outsourcing location for IT firms in the region and in Europe (where it's highly regarded for its animation skills).
That conforms to the experience of American academics working directly with the North Koreans.
"Of all the international partners I have worked with on the academic side, the North Koreans in almost every regard have been the most rewarding both in terms of the quality of the people we have worked with, the commitment they have shown, the focus that they have shown on the projects," said Stuart Thorson, a political science professor who manages Syracuse's side of the program.
"I mean these people don't come as tourists, they don't come to play golf or eat at fancy restaurants, they come to work — so that part is really exciting, and they send real academics; they are not political people disguised as academics. They send people who know what they are doing; they are scientists."
Disappointments on both sides
But getting to launch an actual program requires prodigious patience and determination.
One major complication is a volatile bilateral relationship, currently at an especially low ebb after a North Korean long-range missile test drew a vehement international condemnation, leading Pyongyang to expel International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and swear off more talks aimed at cooling its nuclear ambitions.
The disappointments — and prickliness — run both ways, as both governments use humanitarian or educational exchanges to signal pleasure or displeasure with the state of political relations.
Even on the most basic areas of cooperation there are difficulties. A robust program of food aid, managed by a number of American nongovernmental organizations and supported by the U.S. government, recently broke down. The reason? A dispute over the number of Korean speakers accompanying the aid to make sure it went to the hungry rather than supplementing the rations of the military or the Korean Workers' Party.
In the U.S., an interagency panel rejected Syracuse's request to send North Korea some standard desktop computers so that the two sides could step up their collaboration. The Pentagon has long argued against the dual-use possibilities of even a few simple PCs, which they fear could be linked into a supercomputer.
Carriere said that soon after the State Department put the kibosh on the plan — not for national security but for foreign policy reasons — visiting Americans saw Kim Chaek already had stacks of PCs openly bought from China, South Korea and Japan.
But while there have been successes in seeing things go into North Korea, there's been less to come out. The U.S. side has raised about $1 million to start hosting Korean academics for semester-long faculty development stays at Syracuse, but Pyongyang is not yet allowing anyone to come. And some training classes Syracuse has offered have been held in China to allow unfettered Internet access.
"It takes a lot of patience, sometimes more patience than I think I have," admitted Thorson, who also worked with China when it first began plugging into the Internet.
"People like me working in this area would be thrilled if we could have more separation from these two things (politics and exchanges)," added Carriere. "It's a bad habit of the political arena that both sides are looking for a kind leverage they ought to forgo."
Such reflexes are delaying a trip by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences — to be led by its president Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry — meant to pave the way for sharing of numerous scholarly databases. Such a collaboration could assist North Korea help feed its 24 million people by improving its agriculture.
"With such a strong demonization of the (North), people sometimes tend to forget that whatever they might think of the political system and the political leadership, there are still human beings there who when you go to distribute food aid or engage in some education exchange, the people you meet are wonderful, and the need is very great," said Carriere.
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