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How to do scientific research in and with North Korea

Brigitte Osterath / Share:
Heaven Lake on top of Mount Paektu. Reuters

In July 2004 Richard Stone traveled to North Korea for the first time. Back then he was the editor of Science magazine, and as a US citizen and journalist, it was difficult for him to get a visa.

He got lucky.

Mr Stone met North Korea’s science attaché at the North Korean embassy in Russia and was invited for an official visit. And so he entered another world.

“The researchers worked in a kind of bubble,” he says. “They couldn’t attend conferences, couldn’t discuss anything with other scientists outside North Korea. And their scientific literature consisted mainly of photocopies from western journals from before 1991.”

Yet the science editor came across research projects with substance – even beyond nuclear weapons research.

The North Koreans, for example, probably succeeded quite early on in cloning rabbits.

“They showed me the rabbits, and they actually looked like the original,” he says with a laugh. “But of course, they hadn’t published the results in professional journals. So I just had to believe them.”

Scientifically, North Korea is now far less isolated than in the past.

“I’ve been there several times since 2004,” Mr Stone says, “and have seen the research community in North Korea open up to the world. The North Korean researchers now have better access to scientific literature, and the country has recognised that science depends on cooperation.” Today, Mr Stone’s a member of the National Committee on North Korea, an NGO that promotes exchange between North Korea and the US.

There are so many examples of international collaboration with North Korea, in fact, that South Korea’s science council speaks of the “dawn of a new era”.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in February, one of their delegates, Hong-Jin Yang of the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute in Daejeon, presented an ambitious plan: a joint observatory run by South and North Korea, and located on North Korean soil.

It’s to be built on Mount Paektu, a mountain of about 2,700 meters on the Chinese border.

“It’s the highest and darkest mountain on the Korean peninsula, with very good visibility,” Mr Yang says.

In one sense, the conditions for such a project are good: In 2012 North Korea rejoined the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a worldwide association of astronomers based in Paris. The country had been excluded from the IAU in 1996 because it no longer paid membership fees.

Yet even as Hong-Jin Yang and his North Korean colleagues plan the joint observatory, they’ve never actually exchanged a word. South Koreans are forbidden from communicating directly with North Korea.

“We have to go through the South Korean Ministry of Reunification,” Mr Yang told DW. “The ministry will then convey our message to North Korea. It’s not easy, and it’s not fast.”

“North Korea is a hidden society,” adds Sun Hwa Hahn, the managing director of the National Research Council of Science and Technology of South Korea. “It’s hard to find the right contact person and then contact them.”

Mr Stone describes his own difficulties. While he can communicate with North Korean researchers via email from the US, there are only group email accounts for entire institutes. “An answer doesn’t come overnight,” he says.

But Mr Yang is optimistic that the political situation will continue to ease and that he will soon be able to travel to North Korea to meet his colleagues – at the latest, when the observatory is actually built.

Nonetheless, researching in and with North Korea remains difficult. There is virtually no internet access in North Korea, Mr Stone says, making it difficult to exchange data with partners. Due to sanctions against the country, a research mission also needs a lot of preparation, especially if the US is involved. “You have to convince the US government that the project is important and does not violate national interests,” he says.

Also, anything the researchers want to introduce into the country, “from laptops to USB sticks,” requires a permit from their home country. Mr Stone and others are still waiting for permission for their volcano surveys planned for next summer.

That’s because Mount Paektu is not only a favoured location for an observatory – it’s also an active volcano. Its eruption in 946, known as the millennium eruption, was, according to Mr Stone, “one of the three largest volcanic eruptions in the last 10,000 years.”

Since 2002 there have been more earthquakes at the former eruption site, and the mountain is measurably swollen, probably due to magma in its interior. Another major eruption would affect not only China, but also South Korea and even Japan, Mr Stone says. “The volcano has hardly been studied. We don’t even know why the volcano exists, because it’s not on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where so many other large volcanoes are.”

At North Korea’s request, Mr Stone brought British volcanologists and seismologists into the country for the first time in 2011. In the following years, they installed several seismometers on the volcano to map the magma chambers inside. “We published the results,” together with the North Korean scientists,” says Mr Stone. “They take part in the evaluation.”

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