An American NGO ... in North Korea

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The story of an Arizona rancher who moved to the most oppressive country on earth -- and is attempting to reconcile two countries that have been enemies for decades.

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Banners with slogans are displayed in Pyongyang on March 25, 2012. (Reuters)

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.

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.

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.

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Jeff Baron is a retired U.S. foreign service officer.

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