HELSINGIN SANOMAT international

Business & Finance - Monday 31.7.2000

North Koreans study potato farming in Ostrobothnia

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By Heli Suominen

The white laboratory coats stand out sharply against the green plain. The visitors from far away walk into the aphid-proof greenhouse of the Tyrnävä seed potato centre.
   
Three researchers, Choe Kwi-nam, Han Won-Sik and Min Gyong-nam are visiting the centre in the western Finnish region of Northern Ostrobothnia to learn about potato farming. The course is part of development cooperation work between Finland and North Korea aimed at easing North Korea's serious food shortage.
   
According to estimates by foreign experts, as many as two to three million North Koreans died of hunger in the 1990s.
   
"This year's rice and maize crops are not sufficient because we are suffering from the worst drought in 50 years," says Choe Kwi-nam of the Pyongyang Agricultural Research Institute.
   
North Korea's official goal is to achieve self-sufficiency in food production by the year 2002. Few outside the country see this as a realistic goal.

Rice is the country's main
agricultural product, but these researchers are interested in potatoes.
   
"I switched from rice research to potatoes three years ago because potato research is so important for our country. Potatoes help increase production. They give two crops each year," says 33-year old biologist Min Gyong-nam as he examines the sturdy stems of the potato plants in the greenhouse.
   
In Tyrnävä the scientists learn about the development of pure strains of seed potato. "The Finns have excellent knowledge of plant diseases and the country has a monitoring system for plant diseases which we would like to develop in our country as well," Choe Kwi-nam says.
   
Work at the Seed Potato Centre, which is proud of its state-of-the-art expertise in the production of seed potatoes, is far from the city-dweller's image of getting dirty digging around in a traditional potato field. The Centre, surrounded by potato fields with white flowers, is dominated by streamlined greenhouses. Instead of the fields, the guests study in a laboratory full of test tubes and pipettes.
   
The visit, with a budget of just under FIM 100,000, is being financed out of Finland's FIM 2.5 billion budget for development cooperation. Researcher Kalle Kankaanpää of Finland's Ministry for Foreign Affairs characterises the project as "completely non-political.

Questions of foreign policy
tend to provoke confused laughter from the scientists. "We are scientists, not politicians," Choe Kwi-nam says.
   
The three say that they hope that North and South Korea, which were separated in 1945, could be united soon. The countries are still in a technical state of war.
   
"We are one people. Three principles need to be followed in the unification of the Koreas: the independence of the two parts, solidarity, and peace," the researchers say as if it were a mantra.
   
Although the leaders of the countries already sat at the same table in June, unification is still a long way off. The communist North Korea remains one of the world's most isolated states.
   
According to the potato experts visiting Tyrnävä, the greatest obstacle to unification are the 37,000 US soldiers on the side of the capitalist South, who guard the border between the two Koreas, which is considered to be the last barrier of the Cold War.
   
And what about the concern felt by the rest of the world over North Korea's missile programme and its possible nuclear weapons?
   
"A missile is for defence. Our country is not aggressive. Do you think that the missile issue is a problem?" The scientists ask in a somewhat embarrassed tone.

The men refer to Kim Il-sung,
their country's leader who died in 1994 as their "dear leader". They also have nothing but praise for his son, Kim Jong-il, who now rules the country. The outside world sees both leaders as dictators.
   
All three have small Kim Jong-il pins on their shirts. "It is a symbol that he is always present," Min Gyong-nam says.
   
As a keepsake, the journalist is given part 24 of the 1969 edition of the collected works of Kim Il-sung. On the inside is a picture of the "dear leader" protected by a sheet of silk paper.
   
The polite researchers are somewhat embarrassed when asked about their personal impressions about Finland
   
"Nothing has surprised us, because we did not expect anything. The sunlit nights maybe. At first, we could not sleep," says Min Gyong-nam. "I am happy that we were able to come here. We are getting important knowledge for solving our country's problems."

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 26.7.2000

Links:
 SPK - the Seed Potato Centre


HELI SUOMINEN / Helsingin Sanomat
heli.suominen@sanoma.fi

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