Transnationalizing Northeast Asia, One Tree at a Time: Interview with Dr. Park DongKyun

By | September 24, 2013 | No Comments


Image of a team preparing the ground for a 100ha chestnut tree plantation at Goseong nr. Mt. Geumgang | Image: Park DongKyun

Preparing the ground for a 100ha chestnut tree plantation at Goseong nr. Mt. Geumgang in 2006 | Image: Park DongKyun

This summer a research group lead by Sino-NK’s own Christopher Green and Steven Denney, with assistance from Yonsei University’s Dr. Seo Jungmin, set out to answer the following research question: Does South Korea’s structural location, as well as its political-cultural orientation, position it to be a regional leader in addressing global problems, manifested in or originating from Northeast Asia, through the creation of transnational civil and non-governmental networks? Drawing on insights from network theory, the literature on South Korea’s post-democratic transition civil society, and their own fieldwork, the team sought to explore the role of civil-society networks initiated in and sustained by South Korea for the purpose of addressing global problems with a regional impact. 

The answer to their research question, they found, is yes, with plenty of caveats and footnotes. Their jointly authored paper, forthcoming with the Nautilus Institute, provides three case-studies that show how South Korean-lead civil society networks are playing central roles with regard to: 1) forestry and food security; 2) the flow of refugees; and 3) transnational networking for policymakers and academics.

In July, Christopher Green sat down with Dr. Park DongKyun to discuss number one above, especially Dr. Park’s involvement with transnational forestry networks and his experiences in North Korea. Park is currently a consultant with the Korean Forestry Society, Adjunct Professor at Beijing Forestry University, and Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Geo-ecology in Mongolia. The following interview is a product of their conversation. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Transnationalizing Northeast Asia, One Tree at a Time: Interview with Dr. Park DongKyun

by Christopher Green, with transcription by Nova Mercier

Christopher Green [CK]: To what extent are transnational forestry networks successfully established in Asia?

Dr. Park DongKyun [DK]: In South Korea, many people were laid off in the late 1990s following the IMF crisis. From this time, civil society leaders started to get interested in using forests as a tool for job creation. The forests were around 30 years old by that point, but they had not been well maintained. So people were sent out and paid to take care of these forests, including practices like thinning and pruning.

From 1998-1999, the “dust and sand storm” (DSS; Yellow Dust; 황사) issue also became very serious. There have always been sandstorms from China. There are records from as far back as 2,000 years about this dust, or “soil rain.” It was thought then that it was nature’s way of punishing the King for doing a bad job. But from the late 1990s it grew so severe that forestry leaders began to wonder why they weren’t working with China and Mongolia to solve the problem. The desert crosses both of their borders. It is said that 40 percent of the yellow dust comes from Mongolia and 60 percent from China.

After normalization between South Korea and China in 1992, we were able to travel there, but it still wasn’t easy. There were no real NGOs then; they were all like state-run organizations. In 1999 we officially established the Northeast Asian Forest Forum (NEAFF), and invited the Head of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to engage along with Chinese and Mongolian experts. Together we discussed the best ways to reduce desertification.

So from this time we began to establish international networks, to add to each country’s own network. Mongolia has the Mongolian Forest Forum (MOFF), and China has a network that comes under the Beijing Forestry University.

Every year we organize conferences, meetings, workshops, and pilot projects. We plant trees on the margins of the desert, on degraded land in cities, and in rural areas. Even 60km out of Beijing you can find the desert creeping, and we plant in many different places of Inner Mongolia, too. Mongolia is the same.

Degraded forest cover due to extreme over-use. | Image: Hans Seidel Foundation

Degraded North Korean forest cover due to extreme over-use. | Image: Hanns Seidel Stiftung

CG: How are these activities financed?

DK: Seventy percent of the funding came from the Yuhan-Kimberly company, headed by Kook-hyun Moon. Other contributors include Korean Air Lines, Asiana Airlines, Hyundai, and other smaller companies interested in the forestry sector (such as Soah Industry, a Chinese producer of dolls). The Korean government also sets aside funds for civil society groups, so we have applied for those. The Seoul City government has also given grants for the development of programs in China and Mongolia. From 2003-2006, we mobilized around $1 million. We received contributions in-kind from our partners, including Russia.

CG: So you have essentially created these networks from scratch?

DK: These networks didn’t exist prior to 1999. We asked our contacts in academia and the South Korean government to introduce us to people who would be interested in these issues. That year we hosted an international conference with the UNCCD and invited the Mongolians and the Chinese. In 2000 we traveled to Mongolia and China, where we had an on-site conference and a tree planting ceremony. We suggested there that they establish domestic networks, and to do this we designated one institute in each country. In China, the network comes under the Beijing Forestry University, and Mongolia’s falls under the Institute of Geoecology at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.

CG: Who is driving these networks now?

DK: Korea is involved in these networks, but other countries like Japan are maintaining their own. The Japanese networks are interested in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia due to their timber resources, whereas Korea is more focused on Mongolia, China, Russia, and North Korea for the rehabilitation of degraded forests, desertification, and the yellow dust issue. China is more orientated toward sustainable forest management issues, including rehabilitation.

CG: Can you talk about the networks you maintain with North Korea?

DK: Every year I have had the chance to join unofficial meetings with the North Koreans, although other people from different countries are always present. The North Koreans don’t want to meet with the South Koreans alone. Although the South Koreans fund these meetings, there should be around four of five other countries in attendance. As the organizers, we normally invite several Chinese, Mongolians, and Russians, along with around ten North Koreans and ten South Koreans. We meet in Beijing, Shenyang or Ulaanbaatar, but never in Seoul. At one point we proposed meeting in Seoul, and they said they would come, but it never panned out. Last year they proposed Pyongyang, but only if they received funding for organizing workshops and the conference. The North Koreans know exactly who is funding the meetings, but the invitation letter has to be from the UNCCD or the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or universities.

The North Koreans don’t have networks of their own. There are three ways to deal with them. The first is directly through the North Korean government. The second is via international agencies like the UN, and the third is through civil society organizations. Now, both the state and civil society routes are broken.

A dry North Korean river bed, hit by prolonged drought conditions in the country. | Image: Hans Seidel Foundation

A dry North Korean river bed, hit by prolonged drought conditions in the country. | Image: Hanns Seidel Stiftung

CG: What is it like dealing with the North Koreans?

DK: It took us several years to prove to them that we were sincere. We do not give any money to the North Koreans in exchange for meetings. But we have made it clear that we will buy anything for them that they may need for the rehabilitation of degraded forests.

In 2001, we worked with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to restore damaged nurseries in Huichon, Jagang Province, and in Tongchong, Gangwon Province. Many nurseries were destroyed during the floods and typhoons of the late 1990s and in 2000. We wired $700,000 via the UNDP, who bought materials and equipment–including tractors–built roads and fixed the damage. We chose to work directly with the UNDP as they report back and provide pictures and current data. The North Koreans don’t give us progress reports, they just say, “Yes, everything is fine. We will show you next time.” But that never happens.

CG: Doesn’t this attitude frustrate you?

DK: Every time we have a meeting, whether official or unofficial, I ask the North Koreans to record the forestry work on video or provide reports with pictures. I’m prepared to give them all the equipment. But the North Koreans just won’t do it.

We have had successes though. In an area in Geumgangsan but outside of the Hyundai site, we planted 100ha of chestnut trees in 2006. We heard back later that Kim Jong-il visited the area and was very happy with it.

Every year from 1999 we have held meetings with North Korean forestry officials and scientists. We support them by providing funds and information. I copy journals and books, both in Korean and English. Sometimes I purchase seeds to give to them.

CK: Do you think the regime takes these meetings seriously?

DK: Forestry is such a small sector. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs  (외교부) in Pyongyang complains to environment and forestry officials that no gifts or profits accrue to their work. Here, gifts mean financial support or provision of equipment for rehabilitation projects, not for personal gain. For this reason it’s difficult for such officials to attend meetings. This is why the gifts are important; they have to show off both internally and externally.

Preparing meetings takes around three to four months. It then takes the North Koreans two months to decide who will attend. In 2006, they started to come prepared with PowerPoint presentations, and they were all in English. This was a big change. The young scientists had memorized around 20 slides in English praising the leaders. The older generation is slowly disappearing and being replaced by younger people who understand the importance of English. Many of them have travelled overseas and had their eyes opened.

CG: Do any of your experiences with the North Koreans stand out in particular?

DK: During the first meeting we held with the North Koreans under the UNDP, we had a presenter come in who showed a 20-minute movie about landslides and erosion in South Korea. It was a film containing old footage from the 1970s. Around that time, President Park Chung-hee had passed over the Pohang area of Korea by air and seen that there were no trees; it was like a desert. President Park had noticed when flying over other countries that their countryside was all green, so he asked that the Korean people to go out and plant trees. The people working to regenerate the forest were poor and wore old clothes.

At one point in the film, Park Chung-hee was shown making a site visit. He must have appeared on the screen for no more than few seconds. The North Koreans became very upset, and wanted to know why were we were showing them political content. They accused us of violating the 6.15 Joint Declaration (남북 공동선언) regarding political indoctrination.

Eventually, we solved our differences and continued with the workshop. However, meetings after that incident were not as easy to organize. They complained of us not providing such and such, and became angry if we accidentally used the South Korean term for North Korea. They’ve threatened many times to just pack up and leave over these small things.

CG: How do you cope with such a sensitive state of affairs?

DK: It just takes time. You have to sit down with all conference members prior to negotiations for three to four hours. You have to tell them what phrases and vocabulary are okay to use, and which ones are not.

When you are dealing with North Koreans one on one, there are generally no problems. But when you are speaking with two or three people at once, it is a different story; they get upset so quickly. Nevertheless, their forestry officials are very sincere about the work we are doing.

This reforestation work will take 10 or 20 years to produce any real results; making degraded forest land in North Korea green again. We don’t have sufficient time to do it. We’re still, even now, just overcoming internal and external difficulties.

Pesticide being sprayed on the 100ha chestnut tree plantation nr. Mt. Geumgang. | Image: Park DongKyun

Pesticide being sprayed on the 100ha chestnut tree plantation nr. Mt. Geumgang in May 2008. | Image: Park DongKyun

This interview was supported in part by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability for research into “How Civil Society and Non-Governmental Networks Are Addressing Transnational Issues,” a paper  jointly authored by Christopher Green (Sino-NK/Cambridge University), Steven Denney (Sino-NK/University of Toronto), and Dr. Seo Jungmin (Yonsei University).

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  1. Thanks for sharing this interview. I am glad to have learned from this because I am not very familiar with SINO-NK’s study. I do hope that our global problem now will truly be addressed with the aid of this study. Rehabilitation of our forest is very important and I am happy that they see this call.

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