Science Diplomacy with North Korea

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Kaesong, North Korea. Photo:

Just when nobody thought it could get worse, it did. Diplomatic relations with North Korea reached a proverbial low point early this year when Pyongyang followed a long-range rocket test with an underground nuclear explosion. Despite a perceived decline since then in North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric, and despite the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, political tensions between the two Koreas, and between North Korea and the United States, still remain high. Pyongyang, for example, has recently cancelled scheduled North-South family reunions and there are troubling signs that it may be resuming its plutonium program.

While the prospects for political engagement with the Kim Jong-un regime may indeed remain bleak, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other opportunities for increased dialogue. One of these is science diplomacy, which enables states to use academic collaborations and scholarly exchanges in politically helpful ways. The virtue of this type of diplomacy, which can focus on solving common environmental, health, energy, and security problems, is the ‘neutral’ political space it provides friends and foes alike. Instead of continuing to trap themselves in mutual competition, they can indeed use science to create shared interests and a common destiny.

Another virtue of science diplomacy is that it has a proven track record. During the Cold War, for example, cooperation between American and Soviet scientists provided a ‘safe haven’ for dialogue within a wider context of mutual mistrust, particularly when it came to nuclear security issues and space technology. We also have the example of the US and China. After the resumption of diplomatic ties between the two states in 1973, the US was able to exploit the ‘soft power’ appeal of its science and technology base in order to engage with an otherwise wary adversary.

These historical examples are interesting enough, but what about today? Can we collectively use science diplomacy to bring North Korea back into the international fold?  Yes, the possibilities are there. While North Korea has a powerful interest in cooperating with the US on science-related issues, the US also has strong incentives to engage with North Korea in realms other than politics.

  • For North Korea, scientifically engaging with more advanced nations will promote its own development at minimal political and economic cost.
  •  For the US, cooperating with Pyongyang on ‘hard science’ issues – such as biodiversity, climate change, and public health – will encourage more generalized transparency and the adoption of scientifically neutral international standards by North Korea.
  • For both countries, science diplomacy can help build key relationships and networks of trust. This is especially relevant in the case of North Korea, where trust is built on the personal level rather than through official negotiations, and where maintaining private relationships is paramount.
  • For both countries, science diplomacy can finally lead to desired spillover effects. Because scholarly exchanges do create zones of openness, mutual understanding and trust, they can also open up channels of communication that lead – in time – to real progress in other areas, including politics.

The way forward

Although the above opportunities are very real, formidable barriers nevertheless still exist. The most obvious one is securing permission for foreign scholars and scientists to work in North Korea. Another barrier is the high risk of political obstruction. Even though scientific engagement should be clearly separated from official diplomatic activities, political climate change has always existed and can cause significant and unexpected setbacks, even in politically neutral areas. Finally, and for whatever reasons, the political will to engage with each other could temporarily or permanently evaporate between the Koreas and the US.

Despite these dangers, however, there are different ways to minimize them.

  • First, and primarily from a North Korean perspective, ‘high importance and low sensitivity’ areas of scientific enquiry need to be identified.  Once done, specific programs for research and exchange should then be developed.
  • Second, initiatives such as the US-DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium should extend their collaborative efforts to scientific institutions in other countries.  For example, cooperating with Chinese universities and scientific institutions that have close ties with North Korea would not only help facilitate mutual trust, it would also spread financial costs.

That the road ahead for US-North Korea relations will most likely remain a difficult one should come as a surprise to no one. However, science diplomacy can help clear the path forward. All that’s required is for scientists from the US and other countries to take the initiative and directly reach out to the North Korean scientific community. Once done, policymakers then need to follow suit and keep the above problems and recommendations in mind.

Some helpful sources:

“New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy: Navigating the changing balance of power, The Royal Society. January 2010

Micah D. Lowenthal, “Science Diplomacy for Nuclear Security,” United States Institute of Peace Special Report 288 (Oct. 2011). ); Cathy Campbell, “A Consortium Model for Science Engagement: Lessons from the U.S.-DPRK Experience,” Science & Diplomacy (June 2012). Accessed 23 Sept. 2013.

Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004)

Stephanie Nayoung Kang is a resident Kelly Fellow and Young Leader at the Pacific Forum CSIS. Her research focuses on the trilateral efforts by the United States, South Korea and Japan to engage with North Korea, and on East Asian security cooperation in general. This blog, which has its roots in the WSD-Handa Global Opinion Leaders Summit held in Tokyo on September 6th, is part of an on-going partnership between the Pacific Forum CSIS and the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

For additional material on this topic please see:

North Korea: US Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation

Limits of Coercive Isolation

A Double-Edged Sword: Information Technology in North Korea

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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