They came to Baltimore as representatives of a pariah nation, but three North Korean physicians are returning to their cloistered homeland as better friends of the United States than they expected.
Doctors Pyong Guk Kim, Se Won Ri and Tu Yong Pak have completed three weeks studying advanced life-saving techniques at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Department of Emergency Medicine.
Hospital officials billed it as a first-of-its-kind exchange between the United States and North Korea, and issued certificates to the doctors at a ceremony and reception yesterday. The State Department, however, doesn't keep records on visits arranged by private and not-for-profit groups.
"There has never been an academic training delegation here, ever, for an extended amount of time," said Dr. Michael VanRooyen, director of the Center for International Emergency Medicine Studies at Johns Hopkins. VanRooyen initiated the exchange during a May trip to the Asian peninsula.
More history was made after the doctors arrived.
Last week, President Clinton announced the lifting of most of the 50-year-old trade sanctions against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Because the communist country agreed to halt further tests of ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, the administration said it should be rewarded with access to U.S. consumer goods.
With the news, the North Korean doctors became symbols of a fresh start with a longtime adversary.
"Everybody that I talk to in North Korea would like better relations with the United States," said Stephen Linton, chairman of a Maryland-based humanitarian foundation that helped pay for the trip. "I have always thought that sanctions were an impediment to North Korea joining the new world order."
A spokesman for the South Korean Embassy in Washington said he had not known of the visit before being notified by a reporter, but that he supported the trip.
"If that is true, it is welcome, because the gradual increase in exchange between North Korea and the U.S. will lead eventually to peace and prosperity on the peninsula," said spokesman Kim Hebeom.
North Koreans have endured years of famine and malnutrition, but the group in Baltimore focused more on emergency and cardiac care than public health.
"We have been impressed again and again with advances in emergency medicine here," said Kim, 69, the senior member of the delegation, which also included a North Korean government liaison. "We have learned about the cutting-edge techniques involved in diagnostics as well as treatment."
Despite the major diplomatic announcement that coincided with the trip, hospital officials did their best to shield their guests from political winds. They didn't publicize the visit until its end, and kept the agenda centered on medical issues.
"I doubt that we had many discussions on a political level with them," said Dr. Gabe Kelen, chairman of emergency medicine at the Hopkins medical school. "We certainly tried to stay away from the political."
It wasn't easy.
Critics have blasted Clinton's easing of trade restrictions as a capitulation to a hostile nation in exchange for a promise to halt missile tests. Last year, North Korea launched a missile into Japanese airspace, and was poised to test a more powerful device.
Jai Ryu, a Loyola College sociology professor and liaison to the Korean-American community for Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said he expects local reaction to Clinton's announcement to be mixed and muted.
"I would think generally that older Koreans would not like this idea of the softening of the relations," he said. "But younger Koreans would have a more open attitude."
Pub Date: 9/24/99