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Empathy Wins Trust Of Wary N. Koreans

Americans in Pyongyang

The Pyongyang Arboretum has received nearly 3,500 plants over the years from dignitaries of fellow Stalinist states. At the heart of the collection in the North Korean capital are two elegant orchids unsurprisingly named The Kim Il Sung flower and The Kim Jong Il flower.

But strangely enough, immediately surrounding the flowers named after North Korea's past and present leaders sit five potted gifts from enemy territory.

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The Americans who donated them say they represent something special: a good working relationship with the North.

And as the world knows, gaining the trust of the North Koreans is a rare thing. These days, American diplomats are tired of unproductive talks aimed at ending the Korean War. International food-aid groups say they are frustrated by North Korean secrecy in admitting the extent of food shortages and their limited access. And diplomats in the South are stymied because the North has declared it will never deal with the Kim Young Sam's government.

But The Eugene Bell Centennial Foundation, named after the first Protestant missionary who came to Korea in 1895, claims to have cultivated an unusual level of mutual trust with the North.

They trust "conservative Christian groups who don't overpromise, don't lie, and don't slander them. It's that simple," says John Linton, one of Mr. Bell's grandsons and a doctor at Yonsei University's Severance Hospital in Seoul. He established the foundation in 1995. "Koreans don't do diplomacy by paper," he adds. "It's just by personal relationships."

Steve Linton, John's brother and a North Korea expert at Columbia University in New York, arranged evangelist Billy Graham's 1994 visit to North Korea. He has also met former leader Kim Il Sung three times.

Last week, North Korea requested the foundation's help in coping with what officials say is a resurgence of tuberculosis, a disease doctors claim is linked to malnutrition. Dr. Linton plans to make it the foundation's "pet project" and is donating diagnostic equipment, medicine, and nutritional supplements.

In return, the foundation is treated "with tremendous respect" and given freedom to visit TB rest houses around the country.

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But skeptics of the foundation's close relationship with the North say Pyongyang simply likes groups who can't exercise leverage or demand anything in return. And observers say that without extracting promises of structural reform to the North's shrinking economy, donors might as well be throwing aid into a black hole.

Linton disagrees. "If you're helping someone, it's distasteful to ask for something," he counters. Linton has great sympathy for North Korea's attempt at self-sufficiency and he agrees with them when they attribute their food crisis to natural disasters.

Most foreign observers attribute North Korea's current woes and severe food shortages to mismanagement stemming from central planning and a misappropriation of resources: Besides spending 24 percent of their economic output on the military, every year $900 million goes to monuments immortalizing former leader Kim Il Sung, according to South Korea's Ministry of National Unification. "If they saved just one-third of it, the food [shortage] would be solved," says a ministry official.

But Linton disagrees with the "mismanagement" criticism. They're an "unavoidable victim of circumstance. I don't want to blame them," he says. His comment may be purely practical. North Korea is easily offended, and making them look bad could prevent the foundation from continuing its work.

"I'm not a communist. I'm a doctor, and I've taken an oath to even treat the enemy," he says, explaining his decision to help North Korea.

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