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Science Writer Richard Stone Explores Possibility of North Korean Détente
[Richard Stone, the European news editor for Science, in July became one of the first Western news reporters to visit the premier science facilities of isolated North Korea. His account appears in the 17 September issue of Science, along with a companion editorial by Norman Neureiter, the veteran U.S. diplomat and Asia expert who now directs the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. The full interview with Stone can be read here.]
Two years had passed since Richard Stone first applied for a visa to visit North Korea, and last June, in a low-key but significant gesture, the government of Kim Jong Il granted his wish. After a long, uncertain lead-up, everything fell suddenly into place: By mid-July, he was aboard the weekly Air Koryo flight out of Beijing, unsure of what to expect as the aging jet descended through the clouds toward the nation that may be the most closed and secretive on earth.
"Flying into Pyongyang can best be described as time-traveling," Stone, the European news editor for Science says now. "Pyongyang airport is a Soviet-style design where you have to check your laptops and cell phones at the door, so to speakyou leave them with customs until your departure…. Strange as it may sound, I wasn't apprehensive. I felt like I was experiencing a history lesson, a trip back to the Stalin era."
After meeting one of the security agents who would escort him, Stone embarked on a week-long journey that brought him to some of the North Korea's top science centers and to meetings with some of its best scientists, places and people long off-limits to Western reporters.
In an account of his visit published in the latest issue of Science, Stone paints a picture of a nation struggling against its own nature and global suspicion to emerge from decades of isolation. Though it has been paranoid about limiting contact with the outside world, and though it is engaged in tense brinkmanship with the United States and its Asian neighbors over its nuclear weapons program, the government of Kim Jong Il now appears to be opening up and seeking new partners to fight famine and poverty among its people. By being one of the few Americans to visit the country, Stone said in an interview, he became a channel for the subtle, sometimes bruising game of diplomacy played by the North Koreans.
Some North Korea experts are wary that recent openings by Kim's government are simply a gambit for collecting ideas that it can use to stave off economic collapse, Stone said. But the nation's intentions are opaque, and Stone said many of the scientists he met welcomed him and seemed genuinely interested in positive international collaboration. If North Korea's signals are sincere, he said, the United States may be able to use science and technology agreements and exchanges to build the foundation for constructive engagement with North Korea, much as it did with the Soviet Union and China beginning in the 1960s and 1970s.
For more than a decade, North Korea and the United States have been locked in an often acrimonious dispute over nuclear proliferation and security on the Korean Peninsula. U.S. President George W. Bush has called North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a "tyrant" and placed his country among the "axis of evil." Kim has answered with rebukes of his own, and has accelerated his nuclear program while demanding aid and security assurances that the U.S. has been unwilling to meet.
But the New York Times reported in August that North Korea has quietly and effectively been working to build its relations with other countries, tilting its failed economy away from orthodox communism and more toward a free market and engaging with Asian and European nations on a host of political, economic and scientific fronts.
Stone is an expert on research in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; he has written extensively on the threat posed by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, with a focus on former Soviet labs and scientists. When he approached North Korean officials in 2002 to apply for a visa, tensions between the Bush administration and the North Korean government were already at high pitch. Despite an ongoing exchange that later developed with the North Korean embassy in Moscow, there was little sign that his application would be approved.
But in June of this year, during talks involving the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, the Bush administration made its first substantive offer to Kim's government. Though public pronouncements by the North Korean government are often barbed with fierce rhetoric, behind the scenes it abruptly shifted course and approved Stone's visa request.
"The fact that the U.S. made a proposal for the first time must have been seen by the Koreans as a positive move," he said. "Perhaps there was a linkage between my visit and making progress in these talks."
Once outside the airport in Pyongyang, Stone found a nation that has paid heavily for its isolation and economic practices, with the costs compounded by natural disasters, crop failures and famine. By some estimates, a million North Koreans have died from hunger since 1995. The government of Kim Jong Il is appealing to its scientific community to address famine, malnutrition and related illnesses, Stone writes in Science.
Agricultural labs are working to develop virus-resistant potatoes and insect-resistant corn and rice. Other labs are experimenting with novel ways to treat anemia and tuberculosis in people. Ambitious efforts are underway to clone rabbits and use advanced reproductive technologies like embryo transfer to create breed "supergoats." And cutting close to the ethical fringe, under government policy, human growth hormone is being administered to all children between 12 and 15 years old who are shorter than 140 centimeters, or 4 feet 7 inches, tall.
"One of the biggest surprises I encountered there was just how warm and open-minded the scientists I met are," Stone said. "They came across as sincere people. And that is promising to me."
Still, Stone's optimism is tempered by his qualms about how collaborations might be misused by elements within the North Korean military, for example.
"Certainly, as one Swedish diplomat put it, you want to in principle engage with the North Korean scientists," he said. "But analysts have pointed out that it's better to avoid projects that would directly strengthen the North Korean military. So yes, I'm optimistic, and I think there is a lot to be gained from engagement, but we have to proceed with great caution."
Stone is currently on leave of absence from Science and will be in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on a Fulbright fellowship teaching science journalism and conducting journalistic research on the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.
Edward W. Lempinen
16 September 2004