How to do scientific research in — and with — North Korea | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 25.02.2019
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How to do scientific research in — and with — North Korea

Politically, North Korea is isolated. Scientifically, less so. An active volcano and plans for a new observatory are showing how cooperative research works there (and where it doesn't).

The crater lake of Mount Paektu at the North Korean-Chinese border (picture-alliance/dpa)

The crater lake of Mount Paektu at the North Korean-Chinese border is interesting for astronomers and seismologists.

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.

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."

'Dawn of a new era'

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

"I've been there several times since 2004," 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 recognized that science depends on cooperation." Today, 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 (nearly 9,000 feet) on the Chinese border. 

"It's the highest and darkest mountain on the Korean peninsula, with very good visibility," Yang says.

The crater lake of the volcano Mount Paektu. (Richard Stone)

The crater lake of the volcano Mount Paektu, which last erupted in 1903

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," 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."

Participants of the AAAS session Science diplomacy and North Korea (NST (National Research Council of Science and Technology) )

Participants at the AAAS session on North Korea, where not a single North Korean was present.

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 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.

Hong-Jin Yang speaks at the AAAS session Science diplomacy and North Korea (NST (National Research Council of Science and Technology) )

Ambitious plans: The South Korean astronomer Hong-Jin Yang wants to advance an observatory in the north.

Got a permit for that?

Nonetheless, researching in and with North Korea remains difficult. There is virtually no internet access in North Korea, 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. 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 favored location for an observatory — it's also an active volcano. Its eruption in 946, known as the millennium eruption, was, according to 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, 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, 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 Stone. "They take part in the evaluation."

British researchers James Hammond and Clive Oppenheimer inspect ash layers from Mount Paektu volcanic eruption (Richard Stone)

British researchers James Hammond and Clive Oppenheimer inspect ash layers from the Mount Paektu volcanic eruption

Stone is certain: Such joint projects only work with real cooperation — and not with Western researchers conducting the research and analysis work entirely on their own.

Many in the community are anxiously awaiting the next meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un scheduled for February 27.

"There are high expectations that the meeting will go well and lead to a relaxation of sanctions," Stone says, "and that our work in North Korea may become a little easier in the future."

Read more about the summit: Vietnam: Security overhaul boots Kim Jong Un impersonator ahead of Trump summit

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