A model of one of the planned duplex units.

Now may not seem like the best time to undertake a humanitarian project in North Korea.

Tensions on the peninsula are at their highest point in years after a torpedo attack in March sank a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. The international community has blamed North Korea for the incident, and the U.S. has led the charge for greater sanctions against the reclusive country at the United Nations.

In its latest belligerent comments, North Korea has warned that joint military exercises conducted this week by South Korea and the U.S. would result in armed retaliation.

Against this ominous backdrop, a Georgia aid group is carrying on with a project aimed at fostering harmony by building homes in North Korea.

Based in Americus, the Fuller Center for Housing is partnering with the North Korean government to construct a 50-unit apartment complex in a small farming community outside the capital city of Pyongyang.

In addition to providing energy-efficient housing that can withstand natural disasters, the goal is to “demystify” the North Korean people to Americans, and vice versa, said David Snell, the Fuller Center’s president.

“We know very little about each other as people,” Mr. Snell told GlobalAtlanta. “When I’m over there and I’m working with the folks, I could be anywhere in the world. People are people.”

Mr. Snell had been scheduled to travel to North Korea in July to finalize the deal. About 150 volunteers, about half from pacifist Christian groups like the Mennonites and Quakers, have signed up to go build the homes once the center receives the government go-ahead.

“They’re getting itchy,” Mr. Snell said. “There’s a lot of interest in this. It’s a fascinating deal, and the brave of heart are ready.”

But with the diplomatic tiffs, North Korea had to host more visitors from the United Nations in July. Its government hosts – who must accompany all foreign visitors – were overbooked, according to Mr. Snell.

He was slated to go with Han Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues, or Globis, at the University of Georgia. Mr. Park makes regular trips to North Korea and has served as an unofficial point of contact between the governments of the so-called “Hermit Kingdom” and the U.S.

The decision for Mr. Snell to come was “last-minute, so (the government) didn’t have the proper kind of time to process it,” Dr. Park told GlobalAtlanta after his return.

His discussions with officials indicated that recent events haven’t dampened the government’s support for the project, he said. 

“I think that at the highest levels they deliberated on this and they decided to accept the Fuller Center’s project,” he said. It will go on “unless the United States government or the Fuller Center decides to pull back.”

Dealing with a nation that lacks diplomatic ties with the U.S. has been vastly different from any of the center’s other projects across the globe, Mr. Snell said.

Even preparing for the possibility of sending building materials to North Korea has been a lesson in international geopolitics.

The Fuller Center usually uses local building materials in its projects, but in North Korea, it plans to introduce polystyrene forms not currently available in the country.

These hollow Styrofoam blocks, resembling oversized white Legos, are stacked around steel rebar and filled with concrete to erect walls. The foam provides insulation that keeps homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter, according to the website of Lazarian World Homes, a California-based housing organization that has worked with the Fuller Center to build such homes in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

A 670-square-foot Lazarian home with two bedrooms and one bath, fitted for plumbing and electricity, costs an estimated $17,000, according to the website. The North Korea development includes 50 two-bed, one-bath units with a greenhouse level and attached animal shelters with multiple stalls. 

For the North Korea project, Mr. Snell hopes the forms can be manufactured in North Korea or China, but in case they have to be sent from the U.S., the center must have an export permit from the Commerce Department‘s Bureau of Industry and Security.

The bureau administers export controls imposed for foreign-policy purposes and embargoes keeping certain U.S. products out of Cuba, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

Forbidden products vary depending on the country. In North Korea, current U.S. law expressly bans “luxury items” such as cosmetics, furs, watches, alcoholic beverages and more. All other products except most foods and medicines require an export license issued at the government’s discretion.

According to a yearly report the bureau presents to Congress, most humanitarian organizations sending products to meet the needs of North Korean people or buttress U.N. programs in the country receive approval.

Of 36 applications in fiscal year 2009, 23 received a license, 12 were sent back and only 1 was rejected.

Though it was a long process, getting the license was mostly just filling out a few online forms and waiting for different government departments to complete their background checks, Mr. Snell said.

Whether the organization actually uses the permit remains to be seen.

Mr. Snell is confident that the project will go forward, but he’s not sure whether the forms will need to be exported from the U.S. For now, he’s waiting for the North Korean government to reschedule his trip.

“They want to do it soon, and I’m just waiting to see when that’s going to happen,” he said.

For more on the project and the Fuller Center for Housing, click here.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...