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The environmental degradation in North Korean has become so severe, North Korea invited a group of five Americans to Pyongyang last month to talk about restoration and food security. It was an unprecedented trip, but when thousands of your own people have to eat grass and tree bark to survive, it kind of makes sense to bring in the experts. And for the American scientists, it was a rare opportunity to instruct North Koreans about ecological basics.

"It was really amazing," said Norman Neureiter, a director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who recruited the Americans who went on the trip, including Margaret Palmer, a specialist in waterway restoration at the University of Maryland. On Friday, Palmer spoke with the The New York Times about the type of environmental degradation in the country, but we wanted to know who set up this rare trip in the first place.

"The idea came from North Korea," said Neureiter, who told The Atlantic Wire that he was first contacted by an official at the Pyongyang International Information Center on New Technology and Economy, which took the lead in organizing the seminar that hosted about 10 scientists from other countries including Canada and China. "The benefit for them was interacting with serious Western scientists in a big forum." 

Of course, we're talking about North Korea, so the entire seminar was meticulously regulated with restrictions on casual banter and free exchange. "One would like to have had more individual interaction, one-on-one or two-on-two, but that wasn't possible," Neureiter said. 

The story of North Korea's environmental crisis begins in the 1950s when the Korean War resulted in rampant forest fires and deforestation. According to Science magazine, the country took another hit in the 1990s when droughts and floods destroyed crops and left thousands dead in a major famine. At the time, "desperate villagers scoured forests for food and fuel" and forest cover was reduced from 8.2 million to 7.6 million hectares.

In recent years, the regime has implemented tree-planting campaigns that have helped but Dennis Ojima, an ecologist at Colorado State University who went on the trip, tells us intense land-use practices have caused continued destruction of the soil matter. "They really mined it out," he said.

Ojima said that while some interactions he had with North Korean scientists were rewarding, the regime restricted the team's movements and limited one-on-one discussions. "They definitely shepherded us around pretty heavily," he said. "I wanted to take a picture of a building and one of the minders ran after me." 

One of the stranger things he saw was how prepared average citizens were for a war with South Korea. "Everyone was in camouflage," he said, describing an outing to the countryside on a Saturday in March. "I started noticing a pickup truck covered with hay and a truck with fish-netting and a motorcycle with camouflage. Farmers were dressed in camouflage." He suspected that it had to do with a coinciding military exercise carried out by the U.S. and South Korea near the border.

Neureiter also described a tense environment in the country in response to the drills. "The English-language press inside North Korea was absolutely vicious about these maneuvers," he said. "Almost every day, organizers would tell us how tensions were rising on the peninsular because of these maneuvers."

Regardless, both Neureiter and Ojima said the exchange of ecological and environmental expertise was productive.  "They were really grateful that we were sharing the information we had with them," Ojima said.