A little publicised programme between Syracuse University’s Maxwell School and the DPRK’s Kim Chaek University of Technology has been ongoing since 2001. Donald Gregg, former US ambassador to Seoul and president of the New York based Korea Society, has long championed this initiative.
Stuart Thorsen, the project’s director and a professor of international relations and political science, is, since 2009 is Maxwell’s first Donald P. and Margaret Curry Gregg professor specifically focussing on Korean affairs. The chair is funded, it is said, by a private Korean businessman, impressed by the 10 year track record of the technology project.
The programme has brought North Korean computer scientists for a six week exchange; its goal is to sweep aside ‘non trivial political differences’ separating the US and North Korea, through a frank discussion of a technological nature in the field of information technology. In the course of a decade, the project has forged a degree of trust and funding, which has allowed its continuance and expansion, resulting in a chair of Korean studies at Maxwell.
Everything is done to create an easy going atmosphere to build friendship among the North Korean and Maxwell students. A certain feeling of friendship is created through dinners and excursions and everyday encounters.
On one hand, the underriding conceit of the programme that technology can in some way erode ideological differences has a romantic ring to it. Certainly, the North Koreans do appreciate the contact and the courses, especially from a country, it is technically at war with, and which, even today, has pursued an aggressive policy against its leadership.
Were it not for Gregg, with the green light from the US government, the project would never have gotten off the ground. The former ambassador, once a senior officer in the CIA and former national security advisor to Bush pere, is more or less well regarded in and out of government, and has actively pursued, within the ‘realpolitik’ of US policy towards North Korea, widening any opening towards Pyongyang. It would not be an exaggeration to say, he has achieved some success, even in the more tense moments during the Bush junior and Obama administration.
It is to his credit that he can gather in symposia the pride of the US North Korea clerisy who remain fundamentally hostile to North Korea, and quiet their zealous exuberence.
Of late, Gregg has gone against the grain of political correctness: consider two examples: one, he departed widely from the held view that a North Korean submarine sunk the South Korean corvette ‘Chenon’ in March 2010. He has publicly pronounced his support of the conclusions of a report Russia prepared that the ‘Chenon’ churned up a dormant torpedo, lying at the sea’s bottom either from world war two or the Korean war, and that the turbulence of the ship’s movement exploded the projectile. [China, sources say, found the Russian report convincing, thereby checking Lee’s and Obama’s elan at the UN Security to condemn North Korea for the sunken ‘Chenon’. It is equally telling that the US media hardly mentioned Russia’s investigation of the incident, nor its conclusions, but went by the numbers in backing the US and ROK claims in spite of the glaring sins of omissions and commissions of a much delayed joint study on Seoul’s and Washington’s part. See ‘GaumDairy’s blogs on the sinking of the ‘Chenon’ and its aftermath’.]
Two, he has called on South Korea’s president Lee Myung bak to begin again delivery of food aid to the North suffering from the effects of bad whether that killed its crops; Lee and two US administrations have stopped food to the North completely since 2008.
Gregg’s patronage of building trust with the DPRK through technology continues and is a testament to his strong belief that through discussions and exchanges a breakthrough between enemies is possible. We’ve seen it with China, then why not with North Korea?