NEW YORK, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Civic exchange with North Korea is more important than ever as ordinary North Koreans remain convinced the United States is hostile to Pyongyang, says a scientist who has traveled to the country with NBA Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman.
Joseph Terwilliger, a professor of neurobiology at Columbia University, told UPI Friday in a phone interview that heavier economic sanctions, the continued deployment of U.S. military assets to the Korean peninsula and rekindled memories of the 1950-53 Korean War play a role in building animosity between North Korea and the United States.
"It's not hard to make [North Koreans] believe we are a genuinely hostile force to them," Terwilliger said. "That's why exchange and engagement is important."
The U.S. geneticist, who has traveled to North Korea intermittently to teach at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, said he finds it "troubling" the U.S. State Department has implemented a North Korea travel ban that penalizes U.S. citizens for visiting the country without special permission.
"Basically, we complain openly about the North Korean government not allowing its citizens to travel freely and now we're not allowing them to come here or for us to go there," Terwilliger said.
That may not be the wisest move when the best way to defuse tensions with North Korea is to convince its people Americans are "not actively looking to destroy them," he added.
Permitting a more flexible arrangement for Americans to travel to North Korea also allows them to make up their own minds about the country without the added filter of the media.
"Before I ever went to North Korea I read every book there was, and I thought I had an image of what the place is like," Terwilliger said. "But then I went on my own to try to get my own data and nothing I saw fit what I expected."
A travel ban would only add to the problems of perceptions about North Korea in the United States, he added.
The North Koreans Terwilliger encountered are missing from the increasingly frequent discussions about the country in U.S. public discourse.
"There's a lot missing in discussions of [North] Korea," he said. "They're normal human beings exactly like we are, in fact, so much more similar to us than anyone expects.
"North Korean people are incredibly friendly. They're very friendly with each other, they work together, there are a lot of support systems for people, social support systems."
Terwilliger has taught North Korean students, mostly of elite background, at PUST since 2013, and found the experience refreshing, as did his colleagues.
One of Terwilliger's peers, who teaches in Sweden, told him teaching young North Koreans was the first time "in years" he actually enjoyed teaching because the students "understood the material, they did the work, and they asked really good questions."
The Columbia professor, who taught human genetics to North Korean students, said they are "absolutely well prepared for the material."
"They memorize things easily. They know much more than I'd ever expect," Terwilliger said.
Terwilliger's teaching experience also opened up avenues for more informal conversations that shed insight into the importance of civic or sports exchange between the two countries.
Rodman, 56, who first visited the country in February 2013, and later became the target of condemnations at home, had made an impression on young North Korean minds.
Terwilliger's students told him they had seen Rodman on television, the "American guy" who "embraced our leader and said nice things about our country."
"We all watched this game and it made us rethink our stereotypes of America," they told him.
Terwilliger later accompanied Rodman and a team of former NBA players to Pyongyang in January 2014, a trip depicted in the 2015 documentary Big Bang in Pyongyang.
The geneticist, who describes Rodman as "like a brother" and a close friend, however, declined to say whether members of the Trump administration had contacted him or Rodman.
Rodman has ties to both Trump and Kim, which could mean he may be already playing a pivotal role through unofficial channels.
Rodman most recently visited North Korea in June and presented officials with translated volumes of President Donald Trump's books.