Trio of Nobel laureates draws North Korea out of its shell

The Nation
May 10, 2016

Scientists engage with young generation in Pyongyang on a mission to sow the seeds of future peace When three Nobel laureates from Israel, Norway and the United Kingdom decided to join a trip to North Korea last week, they had no illusions about their mission.

Branded a "pariah state" by the West for its authoritarian rule and defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons, North Korea was not going to change simply because of a single visit by Nobel prize winners. But the trio believed that being there and sitting down to talk with students and academics would be a worthwhile attempt at engaging the new generation of North Koreans about the outside world.

"We came here for a mission. We came here to plant the seeds of peace through science, technology and communication," Aaron Ciechanover, an Israeli physician who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2004, told The Nation after speaking to students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). His lively presentation on the new era of "personalised medicines" prompted a series of questions from his young audience.

He made it clear that being critical of the regime in Pyongyang was never on the agenda for the mission. "We didn't come here to criticise. We didn't come here to change the world," he said. "I am here to talk to students about science and technology and hope that gradually they will communicate, open up. Maybe not tomorrow, [but] in a year, maybe five."

For the three Nobel laureates, whose visit ahead of 7th congress of the ruling Workers Party was organised by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation (IPF), their first encounter was made all the more remarkable by the fact that the Korean students spoke fluent English and were openly enthusiastic in interacting with them. "Their English was excellent... The students were extremely hungry for knowledge, extremely curious and intelligent," Ciechanover said.

Of course, these were no average Korean students. They were almost certainly children of the country's top elites. PUST is North Korea's first and only private English-speaking university, set up in 2009 with funds provided by overseas evangelicals. Its 60-70 international teachers and lecturers include several Britons and Americans. The Nobel laureates also spoke to students at North Korea's two other most prestigious educational institutions - Kim Il Sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology.

Uwe Morawetz, founding chairman of the IPF, said the trip provided an opportunity for the new generation of North Koreans to make their voice heard, and described it as a "gateway to slowly open up the country". Morawetz spent two years shuttling between Bangkok, where the IPF has an office, and Pyongyang in order to convince its counterpart, the Korean National Peace Committee, to host the event.

"It was a very good forum. We learned a lot from the Nobel laureates," said a student at Kim Il Sung University in fluent English. She said by visiting Pyongyang, their foreign guests would be able to see North Korea for themselves instead of listening to what she described as "distorted" news reports about her country by Western media.

Of course, the Nobel laureates didn't pretend they had seen everything they wanted to see or should see during their seven-day visit. While saying he was impressed by what he saw in Pyongyang, Richard Roberts from the UK, who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 1993, admitted it likely didn't represent the whole picture of the country, which has made international headlines for human rights abuses and mass starvation. "I am sure we saw the upper echelon of the society and not how everybody in the society lives," he told The Nation.

But what he experienced was probably enough to change his perception of the country previously shaped by Western news reports. "What we saw was quite impressive. What we saw in Pyongyang is what we would have seen in many other countries with the same level of development... I was expecting to see a lot of thin people who were starving," he said.

But there have always been lingering questions about the genuineness of what is presented to foreign visitors to this largely isolated country. On this particular trip, the secretive nature of the society and the ever-present minders for the Nobel laureates and accompanying journalists only helped to fuel such doubts. But could everything - from the tender love and care shown to patients at the children's hospital to the happy smiles at amusement parks the Nobel laureates visited to the lively interactions they had with students at the three universities - be staged for the benefit of the visiting guests of honour?

Ciechanover scoffs at the idea. "What a joke! Staged? They built the whole place for us? They filled the classes with 500 children for us?" he said of his visit to the Mangyongdae School Children's Palace, a showcase of how the regime invests in education for youngsters.

Ciechanover said he gained the strong impression that Pyongyang gave priority to education. "There is no doubt about it. I don't doubt it. And if they staged it, they were the best actors in the world. They should go to Hollywood," he said.

The Nobel laureates were joined on the trip by Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein, who is chairman of the IPF's advisory board. Morawetz said they all volunteered to join the peace mission and had paid their own airfare.

Striking a note of optimism, the Nobel laureates believed their trip was the first step in "quiet" diplomacy that would pave the way for more dialogue. Ciechanover and Roberts have extended a standing invitation to North Korean students and faculty members to work in labs in Israel and the UK.

While insisting that their trip was non-political and purely academic, the Nobel laureates did offer personal views on the political future of the country.

"I think they have to find a way to deal politically with the rest of the world, because it will be increasingly difficult for them to keep up if they don't," said Roberts.

Ciechanover said the trip made him more optimistic of North Korea's future. "This is the last really tight communist regime in the world. The leaders may decide to change. Look at what happened to the Soviet Union," he said.