N. Korean scientists 'must get permission to use Internet'

DW (Deutsche Welle)
May 20, 2016


Three Nobel laureates, who recently visited the isolated state, describe the severe restrictions North Korean academics face in their work. An invitation to bring top students to the West has been ignored, they tell DW.

If a North Korean scientist wants to download academic literature from the Internet, he often has to get someone else to do it, Sir Richard John Roberts - a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine - told DW, following a trip to Pyongyang earlier this month.

"They have to ask for permission to use it (the Internet), and more often they ask their question and an intermediary will download one or more articles," Roberts added, having been to three of the Communist state's universities and research centers during the week-long visit.

He described how a high level of censorship "stifles" North Korean academics in their ability to explore related articles or just browse the web. "Also, there was the problem of them not knowing what they were missing very often," the British academic added.

Science is censored

Roberts, who was joined by two other Nobel laureates, biologist Aaron J. Ciechanover and economist Finn Erling Kydland on a trip organized by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation, said the country's progress was being hampered by the strict controls.

Ciechanover described how the visiting academics' tour guides refused them free access to areas they wanted to see, an issue regularly faced by foreign visitors due to the regime's preoccupation with stage managing the country's image to the outside world.

"Whenever we asked to see a laboratory, they excused themselves with all kinds of reasons... When asked about specific pieces of equipment, they said that one piece is in the Science Academy (for example), another somewhere else," Ciechanover told DW. He added that university students he met were "knowledge-hungry," describing how "the English was striking; in two of the three universities, we did not need translation."

The Nobel trio also got the sense that North Korean students were frustrated at the constraints they faced, which included decades-old equipment that Ciechanover described as "pathetically poor," and a lack of access to international journals, but the scholars were not prepared to speak publicly about their difficulties.

The Israeli biologist decried how "good and intelligent people with good intentions bump against a complex wall of embargo," adding that a lack of foreign currency to buy testing agents and equipment along with a ban on attending international conferences "makes involvement in modern science basically impossible."

Isolation doesn't help

Kydland, a Norwegian economist who shared the Nobel Prize in 2004, told DW he was concerned that North Korean academics lacked a strong basic knowledge of economics, due to their country's isolation from the rest of the world.

"At two of the universities we visited, I got less of a sense of their theoretical foundation. One presentation dealt with issues having to do with a self-sufficient economy, not questions of wide interest in the world," Kydland said. He hoped that those with a passion for macroeconomics could be "tooled up" so they can make sense of modern research.

Poverty from decades of self-imposed isolation and international sanctions placed on North Korea over its nuclear program were hampering non-military scientific work, the Western academics added, in a joint-call for the easing of restrictions.

Two of the Nobel laureates have invited promising North Korean students to spend some time in their laboratories, while the third has suggested a visit by DPRK students to economics conferences.

"In my case, a student came up to me after a lecture and was asking questions about restriction enzymes, the field in which I work," said Roberts, who, despite making the suggestion to the university president, has heard nothing since leaving Pyongyang.

Kydland, who specializes in dynamic macroeconomics, was keen that North Korean students are given better access to technology and academic journals, to allow the planned exchanges to be fruitful.

"I'm all for contributing to opening their eyes to what goes on research-wise in the rest of the world. But the person would probably be quite lost unless he or she had a solid foundation in the mathematical tools, as they apply to economics."

But will they come?

Ciechanover was struck by the need to reach out after hearing a talk by a scientist at Kim-Il-Sung University working on the broad subject he covers. "I realized that she may be limited by technology and reagents, and offered her to come and spend time in my laboratory, all expenses will be covered by me," he told DW.

Ciechanover said the offers were open-ended and covered faculty and graduate students.

It's hoped the Nobel Prize winners' visit will go some way to counter the existing combative discourse between the West and the Communist state, said the International Peace Foundation, who added that the trip took two-and-a-half years of planning to arrange.

"We wanted to listen to and engage with the young generation of the DPRK, as this may be a gateway to opening up and to establish a dialogue which could contribute to a wider understanding beyond politics and power play," said Uwe Morawetz, the IPF's Founding Chairman.