Science - October 22, 2009

Field trip across North Korea

Three Wageningen researchers spent a week in North Korea in August. Travelling most of their journey in a mini-bus, Maarten Jongsma, Evert Jacobsen and Siert Wiersema traversed 2400 kilometres to and from a remote potato institute. Maarten's diary entries depict wayside encounters with disco dancers and trucks which run on wood. And a remarkable discovery: the North Koreans have developed potatoes resistant to Phytophthora.

Experimental farms in the potato research centre in Taehongdan
Monday 10 August
We arrived in the airport of Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea. I was apprehensive of my mobile phone being taken away; the head of the local Red Cross team had mentioned in the plane that only local mobile phones for foreigners to use among themselves were allowed. North Koreans also have mobile phones just to call one another. This hardware security is designed to block dreaded communication directly between the local population and foreigners present here. In two previous occasions, I had managed to get my mobile phone through with some excuse; but not this time. I had to hand over both telephones, and with them went my watch and alarm clock as well.
Jon, a guide, and Jo, a researcher, were waiting for us. Together with Ham, the chauffeur, they would travel with us to the potato institute. There wasn't any four-wheel drive available for the journey apparently. The Toyota van assigned to this task was old and had four circles on its dashboard. If only it could get us there without any hitches. The journey to and fro would take five days. A major part of the coastal road to the north was unpaved, we were told.
We were disappointed to hear that the potato varieties from the Netherlands which were resistant to Phytophthora were affected by a local variant of the disease. We would have to radically adjust our plan to use these varieties as the basis for an EU project.
Tuesday 11 August
Breakfast was enjoyable - toast with a small cup of instant coffee, jam, butter, fried potatoes and a pancake. At the edge of Pyongyang, Jon needed our passports again to settle something in an office. We then proceeded in full steam to the other side of the Korean peninsula. All over the place were plots of land with small rice and maize fields, and in between these, soya crops and, here and there, some tobacco and Korean cabbage. The concrete road was in a poor state, and it became pretty bumpy and noisy at the back of the bus. We passed many trucks with engine break-downs or tyre punctures and estimated that almost half the vehicles along the way had stopped to offer some help or other. Along the entire 250 kilometres of our journey, we did not come across any petrol station at all.
Our journey today ended in the coastal town of Majon. We rented a villa with two floors, but couldn't get any water from the taps. The bathtub was filled with cold water, but workers subsequently used a heating element to heat up water in a big tub. We had a good bath eventually.
A walk on the beach brought us face to face with a group of youths from Pyongyang dancing to disco music. Mister, I already miss you. We could feel their desire to talk to foreigners, and yet they held back part of their enthusiasm for some reason.
Wednesday 12 August
Today, we had to drive for 12 hours to cover a distance of 600 kilometres. Setting out, we noticed hundreds of people sweeping fallen leaves away from the road surface. It was amazing how they could be motivated to do this probably every day.
Soon, we found ourselves on unpaved roadways only. Over and over again, we came across many people continually occupied with mending the road damaged badly by rain. Everyone had shovels and scrappers and fresh loam to make the surface smooth again. This unpaved road was actually better to drive on than the paved road with holes. However, speeds above 70 kilometres per hour were out of the question.
There was more originality in the landscape once we drove on the dirt road. Every piece of available land was used to an incredible extent. Hills with slopes of 50 percent were planted with maize and soya without much ado. At this point, only a fraction of the vehicles compared to earlier on was left on the road. Instead, we saw more and more people walking or cycling to their destinations. The cyclists had to dismount at every slope because their bicycles had no gears, and also because these were often heavily loaded with all and sundry.
In general, the people were diligent and often cheerful in doing their work. Technology-wise, everything was out-dated. Petrol was scarce and we saw relatively many trucks running on wood gas. Vehicles shrouded in enormous clouds of smoke carried a cargo of wood in their loading tanks. Someone was always throwing fuel into the burner.
We finally arrived at the port city of Chongjin. In the hotel, warm water was available only an hour after the manager turned on the heater in some place central. We were the only guests. The electricity went off several times during our meal, plunging us into pitch darkness for a minute each time. This appeared to be all in a day's work and the people there didn't bat an eyelid.
Thursday 13 August
Today, we headed for our final destination in Taehongdan, at the northernmost point of North Korea. The terrain was rougher and had more trees;  the Tuman River flows past Musan, a little city on the border with China, separating it from China. Given the problem of refugees leaving the country, we had expected to see heavily guarded border set-ups, but there were neither barbed wires nor warnings to be seen. Instead, people were enjoying their picnics by the shallow border river.
We arrived at half past twelve at the potato research centre. It has an impressive facility for producing three million seed potatoes or 'minitubers' per year. Workers have various labs to carry out quality and disease measurements, and in vitro reproduction of breeding material. There are also forty hectares of experimental fields for a breeding programme.
Dutch varieties are here this year for a comparative field study. The varieties Toluca and Bionica, which had almost no break-outs before in the Netherlands, appeared to be vulnerable for the local Phytophthora. However, the symptoms appeared to be less severe than in the vulnerable varieties - Raja and Desiree - next to them. Afterwards, the director showed us the results of his own breeding programme. Standing out were a number of late varieties which were completely unaffected, despite the high incidence of disease in the region. Remarkable! We made an agreement to test these varieties also in Wageningen.
After a two-hour visit, we had to hit the road again. Jon wanted to cover the difficult parts before dark. He had brought lunch for us along the way, and allowed us to eat this on the banks of the border river, but only after some hesitation. We enjoyed another good lunch of fried fish, boiled prawns, a salad with cucumber, tomato, garlic and onion, and fried chicken. Our thoughts went back to the American journalists who were given fifteen years of hard labour in prison for doing what we were doing. /Maarten Jongsma
Box: Resistant potatoes
North Korea imported Dutch potato varieties resistant to the disease Phytophthora (potato blight) in early 2009 in a project under the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV). This serious potato disease hovered over the country governed by Kim Jong-il, where there are no fungicide imports. More than thirty per cent of the potatoes were lost.
In August, Dr. Maarten Jongsma of Plant Research International, Evert Jacobsen of the Laboratory of Plant Breeding, and Dr. Siert Wiersema of Wageningen International travelled to North Korea. The aim of their visit was to discuss a subsidy application to the European Union for developing blight resistant potatoes and setting up better field management.
'In our current LNV project, two North Koreans are in Wageningen for six months to do research', says Jongsma. 'If the EU application is granted, two more North Korean researchers will be here, this time to undertake a sandwich-PhD programme. They have developed blight resistant potatoes themselves, but do not know the source of the resistance. We'll try to find this out with advanced methods in Wageningen. Funds will also be available to better equip the laboratory of our partner and to disseminate information in North Korea about integrated disease control in the field.'

Box: Wageningers everywhere, even in a dictatorship country
No political boundaries would limit international cooperation in Wageningen UR. Name any country - even dictatorships and war zones - and Wageningen researchers are, or had been, present. Take the example of the Wageningen delegation present in Afghanistan several months ago when Taliban bullets rained around the Dutch soldiers. Or that of Professor Ken Giller working with researchers in the bankrupt dictatorship in Zimbabwe. Niels Louwaars was in Sudan recently to give advice on sowing seeds.
There are no guidelines, except those from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Countries with a negative travel advice are generally avoided, exceptions notwithstanding.
Is there any country which Wageningers do not go to? Myanmar? Ben Geerlings of Wageningen University cannot think of anyone who has been there in the past. Wageningen employees decide for themselves if cooperation in such countries is viable for quality of life.
Has-been visitor to North Korea Maarten Jongsma: 'I think that we should not hesitate to work with colleagues in a dictatorship if cooperation is humanitarian in nature, such as in food provision. This is also the opinion of organizations such as the FAO, the EU and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Cooperation also sets up a base for approaches and insight into other viewpoints.'

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