Toward diplomacy: engaging North Korea through science

Despite long-standing suspicions between the governments of the United States and North Korea, a progressive group of American intellectuals is calling for increased scientific cooperation between the two countries. Speaking at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago on 13 February, members of the U.S - D.P.R.K. Scientific Engagement Consortium pointed to science as a tool for bridging the political gap.

"Science can bring people together - even those people from adversarial nations," said Peter Agre, incoming president of the AAAS.

Agre said that with the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama, the time is right to begin collaborating with North Korea.

"The U.S. and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea now have a scientific opportunity, by engaging scientists, to bridge friendships that may bring our countries closer together," he said.

North Korea is often considered to be one of the most secretive and militaristic societies in the world. But Frederic Carriere, executive director of The Korea Society, said people need to look beyond its reputation.

Carriere said the current relationship between the two countries is based on a situation of "endemic mutual distrust."

"There is an extremely demonized image of the D.R.P.K. in this country," he said. "We have to show through scientific exchanges that these types of perceptions are unwarranted."

Created in 2007, the consortium plans to send a delegation to North Korea later this year to identify mutual research interests. It also hopes to create educational exchange programs between American and North Korean universities.

Scientific collaboration, however, is a project that still faces many challenges, especially considering the political divergences between the two nations.

Only days before the consortium's presentation at the AAAS meeting, the U.S. military launched a spy operation to monitor North Korean missile tests amid fears the country was planning to fire short-range ballistic missiles close to its disputed sea border with South Korea.

It was the latest flare-up in an historical saga of conflicts between the two nations.

With political hostilities dating back to the Korean War in the early 1950s, North Korea is one of America's longest-standing adversaries.

Carriere said the memory of that war is part of the problem, and has contributed to the distrustful attitudes about North Korea that many Americans harbor.

"When we [Americans] think about the conflict, we think about all the suffering our troops incurred," he said. "The problem is we don't see the other side of the picture. We don't see the glaring disparity in collective historical memory."

Carriere said North Korea should not be viewed as an enemy, but instead, a place where symbiotic partnerships can be formed in the fields of science and technology.

A major impediment to scientific cooperation in the past has been a lack of diplomacy. The two countries share no formal diplomatic relations, and are technically still at war.

There have been grievances from both sides. America's primary concern, however, has been North Korea's nuclear ambitions — a continuous source of controversy that has kept the two nations from formalizing a peace treaty.

Cooperation between governments, however, is not entirely out of reach.

On 13 February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the Asia Society in New York, offering a glimmer of hope for improved diplomatic ties.

"If North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations," Clinton told reporters, only a few hours before embarking on her first official Asian tour.

She added that the United States would also be prepared to "replace the peninsula's long-standing armistice agreements with a permanent peace treaty."

Regardless of the political climate, however, members of the consortium agree there is a pressing need to move forward with scientific cooperation.

Stuart Thorson, a political scientist at Syracuse University who has been involved with several educational exchanges with North Korea, said there is enormous global respect for U.S. science and technology, and it is important to engage the world.

He said collaboration is a reciprocal process that benefits both sides and has the potential to result in enormous achievements.

Nevertheless, security concerns about scientific cooperation with North Korea remain, particularly with regards to dual-use technologies that have military applications.

Eric Novotny, vice-president of the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Arlington, VA, acknowledged the existence of security threats, but said the key is keeping information in the public domain.

"What we need to do is maintain and fund joint projects where you have teams of people from both sides constantly interacting."

Novotny said in these types of group settings it would be much harder for North Korea to divert resources and technology toward unintended military purposes.

Thorson insisted that scientific collaboration is critical to North Korea's progress.

"In the information age, we know that what really matters to a country's economic development is innovation," he said. "Scientific innovation unequivocally comes from knowledge sharing, not knowledge hoarding."

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Myles Gough is in the final year of his undergraduate journalism studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. Born and raised in Toronto, he is a proud Canadian and an avid writer. His interests include science, history and defense technology. Feel free to contact him with any feedback or questions: myles_gough@hotmail.com