Magazine article The Futurist

North Korea, U.S. Find Common Ground in Science: Partnerships to Pursue Knowledge Could Advance Both Scientific and Diplomatic Relations

Magazine article The Futurist

North Korea, U.S. Find Common Ground in Science: Partnerships to Pursue Knowledge Could Advance Both Scientific and Diplomatic Relations

Article excerpt

Science knows no national borders. In the U.S.--Soviet Cold War, scientists from the two superpowers collaborated and not only made discoveries together, but also laid groundwork for better relations between their governments. Today, a consortium of U.S. scientists is striving for a similar success story with scientists in North Korea.

The U.S.--DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium, formed in 2007 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Pacific Century Institute, Syracuse University, and CRDF Global, organizes recurring meetings between its researchers and the faculties of scientific institutions in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The researchers describe their work as "non-official diplomacy" that could bear fruit on the scientific front and possibly on the international-relations front, as well.

"Scientific diplomacy can help build bridges. You get two groups of scientists together, irrespective of what country they're from, and they'll be happy to work together and see what problems they can help each other solve," says Linda Staheli, senior staff associate for congressional and government relations at CRDF Global.

Staheli and other consortium members have repeatedly visited the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and held work sessions with faculty and students of the State Academy of Sciences. Many North Korean researchers take great interest in working with their U.S. colleagues on ecology research, in particular, and have submitted proposals for joint projects on forestry, river basin management, fishery restoration, and crop production.

North Korea has been suffering from widespread famines and malnutrition, Staheli notes. The country's scientists may be able to help, however, by developing better ways to manage natural resources, thereby improving the stability of food stocks. Many U.S. scientists, meanwhile, would value North Korean researchers' help in exploring the biodiversity-rich ecosystems on the North Korea--South Korea border.

"The North Korean scientists are not to be underestimated," she says. "Their capacity to innovate is high. They have limited resources, but they really have more than most people think and they have more to offer than most people think."

North Korea's scientists of all disciplines have a fairly receptive audience in the political leadership. According to Staheli, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and lower-level leaders express sincere interest in their researchers' perspectives on development.

"[North Korea's] leadership has made scientific technology a strong priority, and they understand that scientific engagement globally can help their economy and help them with certain issues that they want to address. They do want to be self-sufficient," she says.

There is also much respect among North Korean officials and scientists for U.S. scientific output, according to Fred Carriere, a consortium member and Syracuse University senior fellow, who served as a liaison to North Korea's UN Mission when he was executive vice president of the Korea Society. He has found that collaboration with U.S. researchers would give North Korean scientists' work more credibility in their leaders' eyes.

"They tell us that they want to work with American scientists because they see value in obtaining new ideas," Carriere says. "They recognize that America is one of the leaders in the world of science. …

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