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N. Korea lukewarm to children's forest in DMZ: U.S. teenage boy

All Headlines 17:50 August 20, 2010

(ATTN: photos available)
By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, Aug. 20 (Yonhap) -- A teenage American boy who traveled on a peace mission to North Korea over the past week says he "felt very safe and was treated well," but his proposal for a children's forest along the inter-Korean border faced political barriers.

Jonathan Lee, a 13-year-old Korean-American from Mississippi, returned to Beijing Thursday after an eight-day trip to the reclusive nation with positive impressions of the country and its people, although his request for a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il fell through.

"At first, I thought everybody was going to be kind of unfriendly, kind of cold," he told reporters after arriving in Seoul on Friday. "But once I got there, I saw that people were actually really friendly. They would wave and smile, and I would wave back."

As a youth environmental activist and founder of a Mississippi-based group called International Cooperation of Environmental Youth - Helping Our Polluted Earth, Jonathan started his adventure with hopes of convincing Kim Jong-il to plant chestnut and fruit trees within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a four-kilometer-wide strip of land separating the North from the South. The forest would provide a place for children of both sides to meet and play, while also helping the environment and supplying food for North Koreans.

"(I thought) that there wouldn't be as many trees in some areas, (that) it was all barren - no trees at all," Jonathan said, recounting his expectations before the trip. "Of course, there are some places that don't have many trees at all, but some places have lots of trees."

Deforestation is widely known to be a problem in the North, where people have resorted to cutting down trees to plant crops for their survival.

Jonathan said the letter for Kim Jong-il in which he proposed the idea of the children's peace forest was delivered by a government official. He also said the North showed great interest in the project, but expressed regret over the difficulty in taking it further at this point in time.

"I was told that unfortunately they wouldn't be able to create a children's peace forest until a peace treaty was signed between North Korea and America," he said.

The U.S. fought on the side of South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, which divided the nation and ended in an armistice. The lack of a permanent peace agreement has until now ruptured in periodical conflicts between Seoul and Pyongyang, the latest of which was sparked by the March sinking of a South Korean warship. Seoul blames Pyongyang for the attack, which killed 46 sailors, but the North denies any role in it.

Jonathan's trip, however, has only strengthened his hope for peace to return to the peninsula.

"I discovered that both sides want reunification and that Korea is one. Maybe there will be a peaceful resolution to the problem eventually, and maybe one day a peace treaty will be signed," he said.

The teenage boy also hinted that he is not giving up on his mission to meet Kim Jong-il and persuade him of the need for a children's peace forest.

"Maybe next time," he said, in reply to a question about meeting Kim. "I'll try again."

hague@yna.co.kr
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