How science diplomacy is bridging the two Koreas

Copyright: Eric Rechsteiner / Panos

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  • Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is an example of science diplomacy
  • Inter-Korean science conferences are fewer since 2008 due to political tensions
  • A bilateral science summit can foster scientific collaboration and reconciliation

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[SEOUL] When one of Richard Stone's contacts in North Korea asked him four years ago if he knows any Western volcanologists who might like to study Mount Paektu, a volcano on North Korea’s border with China, he saw a rare chance.

Stone, a senior editor at Science magazine who had previously visited the country, contacted two well-known volcanologists in Britain. In 2013, they all travelled to the volcano with a group of North Korean counterparts.

Two related scientific papers are now in preparation, said Stone at a panel discussion he moderated about science diplomacy in North Korea at the 9th World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, this week (10 June).

The sooner we make this effort, the sooner we’ll be unified.

Youngah Park, Korea Institute of Science and Technology Evaluation and Planning (KISTEP)

“This has been a joint effort between British and North Korean scientists all along,” noted Stone. “The North Korean scientists were not treated as junior partners.”

Korean-American Chan-Mo Park, chancellor of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), added that he first made contact with North Korean scientists in 1990. He recalled visiting Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, for the first time in 2000 and meeting a group of about 160 young researchers.

Park later helped set up PUST, an English-language private university that opened its doors to students in 2010. The university’s professors work for free, and many are missionaries, he said. Student enrolment has grown to 426 from 100.

Park, who now spends about six months a year in Pyongyang, said PUST is a perfect example of science diplomacy. “We are hoping to have a unified Korea, so somebody has to bring south and north closer,” he tells SciDev.Net on the sidelines of the conference.

In recent years, North Korean research institutions have gained access to online archives of international scientific journals. But millions of articles can be difficult to find because of inefficiencies in local search systems, said Charles Dunlap of the US-DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium, an eight-year scientific collaboration between the two countries.

“The availability of those materials is not the same as access,” Dunlap said. “And once you read articles and find articles in your field outside the country, how do you start participating in international science?”

For now, many North Korean scientists and engineers who defect to South Korea do not have relevant skills in their fields, said Youngah Park, president of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Evaluation and Planning (KISTEP).

According to KISTEP’s 2014 survey of North Korean scientists and engineers living in South Korea, only 8 of 30 respondents said they were using their skills.

Youngah Park said inter-Korean science conferences have been few since 2008 because of political tensions.

She suggests the two countries should hold a bilateral science summit “as soon as possible” to deepen scientific collaboration and lay the groundwork for political reconciliation — just as East German and West German scientists did in the 1980s, shortly before the Berlin Wall fell.

“The sooner we make this effort, the sooner we’ll be unified,” she noted.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.