Will North Korea's nuclear standoff boost its presence in international science?

Will North Korea's nuclear standoff boost its presence in international science?

Late last month, North Korea vowed to shut down its nuclear test site, and the diplomatic talks that followed this move hinted at improved inter-Korea relations. These developments have led to optimistic speculations that North Korea might now take an interest in pursuing scientific endeavors more actively and improve its presence in international science.

Although North Korea invests in scientific research, a select few findings make it to international journals. Compared to its counterpart South Korea, the research output of North Korea has been scant: while South Korea published more than 63,000 papers in 2017, North Korea published a mere 80 papers last year. Overall, the contribution of the country to international science has been insubstantial.

However, there are indications of renewed connectivity of North Korea to international science. Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, announced during his visit to China last month that the country intends to focus on becoming “a scientific and technical power and a talent power.” While the country’s research has focused on increasing its military prowess, North Korean researchers are gradually extending their focus to other fields such as materials science, physics, and mathematics.  

It is being speculated that North Korea’s withdrawal from its nuclear programs could spur their involvement in international scientific projects. While North Korea has collaborated the most with China, Germany, and South Korea in the past, more global collaborations with North Korean researchers are expected. “Science is a subject around which you can build relationships,” states James Hammond, a seismologist at Birkbeck, University of London, who is working in collaboration with North Korean researchers on a project.

However, international sanctions imposed on North Korea can present some hurdles. U.S. citizens, for instance, require special permission to travel to North Korea. “There is certainly plenty of interest in getting back in the game, but there has been little opportunity since sanctions have become stricter and stricter,” says Jenny Town, assistant director at the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington DC.    

Whether these latest political developments have a positive impact on the diplomatic relations between North Korea and other countries and how they help the country’s international scientific collaborations remains to be seen.

Related reading:

North Korea's Pyongyang University concerned about U.S. travel ban

Korea: An emerging Asian superpower in science, technology, and innovation

Interview with Dr. Sun Huh: Current challenges of the scientific publishing community in Korea


Science in North Korea: how easing the nuclear stand-off might bolster research

Bibliometric analysis of publications from North Korea indexed in the Web of Science Core Collection from 1988 to 2016

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