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Science Writer Richard Stone Explores Possibility of North Korean Détente
[The following is the text of an interview with Richard Stone, the European news editor for Science. In the journal's 17 September edition, Stone describes a week-long trip to North Korea, where he visited science centers and scientists long off-limits to Western reporters. The telephone interview was conducted by AAAS senior writer Edward W. Lempinen on 16 August 2004.]
Why would North Korea create the opening that you describe in your story at a time when it's perceived that North Korea and the United States appear to be locked in such an intractable, high-stakes conflict?
A: North Koreans are in dire straits. They had a good link with the Soviet Union until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, their links with Russia haven't been very productive. They have an alliance with China but it hasn't provided tremendous support. And so right now they don't have a strong ally and they have an economy that's currently in tatters. So there is the acknowledgment that to get out of their situation they're going to have to reach out to the West. In the scientific area, they have specific orders to try to team up with Western scientists on grants. My trip as a journalist presumably was viewed by the North Korean government as a potential way for them to advertise their current strengths and to look for partners.
The fact that I'm an American journalist made it that much harder to visit North Korea. I started trying to make contact with the North Koreans in mid-2002, so it's taken a very long time. I would get positive signals, then nothing would happen, and I thought it just wasn't ever going to happen. And then the visa approval suddenly came through just a few days after the last round of the six-way talks. In the last round of talks in June, the U.S. for the first time made a proposal to provide aid if North Korea dismantles its complete nuclear program. So the fact that the U.S. made a proposal must have been seen by the Koreans as a positive move and perhaps there was a linkage between my visit and progress in the talks.
Not many Western reporters have made such a trip in recent years, have they?
No. There have been very few Western journalists who have gotten into North Korea since the nuclear crisis flared up in 2002. And as far as I know, this is the first time a Western journalist has been into some of the science centers there. In that sense, this is a very rare look at these institutes.
Did the North Korea government impose any requirements on you, or any kind of limitations on you before they would grant you the visa?
Nono, in fact, they were surprisingly open about my taking photographs as well. I think they're hopeful that my visit can be a way for them to reach out to Western scientists. They must acknowledge there is some risk in the fact that my article is not going to be censored, and they don't have the opportunity to see it before it's published. There is that risk for them. But I think they see the potential benefits as outweighing that risk.
North Korea is such a closed society, such a forbidden place. What's it like to fly into Pyongyang? What's it like at the airport as you arrive? Anything visual or auditory strike you immediately on the ground there?
Flying into Pyongyang can best be described as time traveling. I boarded an old Soviet-made airplane, an Ilyushin-62, operated by the North Korean national airline, Air Koryo, for the weekly flight from Beijing. The flight is only about an hour and a half. I didn't see much on the ground because of clouds. 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. Such modern necessities can't be brought into the country. As an American I couldn't proceed past passport control without my guide, or security escort. Strange as it may sound, I wasn't apprehensiveI felt like I was experiencing a history lesson, a trip back to the Stalin era.
What were your thoughts going into this trip?
I was certainly very excited. I've always been curious about what it is actually like there. You see news reports about it being a closed nationbut what that meant, though, I wasn't sure. I've written about Russian science since 1995, but I'd never had a chance to go to the Soviet Union. I wasn't in that nation prior to 1991. So I didn't have a sense of what such a country is like, where the regime exercises such control over its people. So that intrigued me. I went in pretty open-minded, and tried to suppress preconceived notions about what I might find.
In the time that you were there, what did you see that came as the biggest surprise to you?
Again, it's really like time-travelling. You arrive in Pyongyang and it's a city untouched by Western influence. There are no McDonald's, no Western stores. The traffic lights don't work so young women stand in the middle of intersections directing traffic. It feels like a completely different world. While my visit was carefully controlledI always had escortsI could glean some aspects of life in Pyongyang. Every hour on the hour, a song plays from loudspeakers on the streets, a melancholy song, 'Where are you now Dear Leader?' It's just one very tangible example of how the North Korean government reinforces its messagethat Kim Jong Il, he's the boss. Not to mention it woke me at 5 a.m. on a couple of days there.
One of the biggest surprises I encountered there was just how warm and open-minded the scientists I met are. They came across as sincere people. And that is promising to me because I feel that there is a potential to have real joint projects. So I was thrilled that that possibility is there.
Before we get into talking about the scientific discussions and exchanges you had there, I'd like you to get into the question of the ways in which you were controlled, or monitoredrestricted. A lot of people would assume there were draconian measures for keeping you on a leash.
The itinerary was devised by the North Korean Academy of Sciences. I had requested to visit certain research centers, and they selected from that list where I could go. On my first day in Pyongyang we discussed their proposal of what I would see, and they were a little bit flexible. I'd learned that the Goethe Institute in Germany had recently opened a small reading room and I thought it would be nice to visit that as well. They were flexiblethat did get it added on to the itinerary. Other requests didn't pan out. For example, I'd requested to meet with the president of their Academy of Sciences, but that proved to be more sensitive and it couldn't be worked out in that time frame.
And I had a pair of escortsthey called themselves "guides." One was a conservation biologist, and one was listed as an officer of the Academy. My escorts were with me for the entire working day every day. They stayed in the same hotel. When we weren't working, I didn't feel like I was being closely watched. The last day that I was in town, I had some free time because we finished at around 3 in the afternoon. And I just went out and walked around. I didn't appear to be followed. I didn't have to check in. I had the ability to walk through the city without the escort. I think it wasn't seen as a risk for me to do that because I don't speak Korean and I couldn't really interact with people. From talking to diplomats who have lived there, I think the government has loosened up just a bit.
That said, my trip was completely controlled. There's the assumption that the rooms in the hotel I stayed, the Koryo Hotel, are bugged. You have to assume that's the case. The other factor to keep in mind is that I'm from the U.S., and that made my trip more sensitive. For the most part, North Korea still views itself as at war with the U.S. There is a lot of sentiment about how evil we are. At the same time, there is the realization that North Korea's future could well be linked to good relations with the U.S. So they treated me with kid gloves. They didn't want anything to go wrong. They were very concerned about my welfare and tried to make sure that I accomplished what I'd hoped to. So it's pretty strange: On the one hand, I 'm viewed as the enemy, on the other hand, they viewed me as someone they had to take extreme care with.
There's an interesting comment in your story from Vasily Mikheev, chair of the Asia security program of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Moscow: "Scientific diplomacy can help North Korean intellectuals to survive…" Did you see or sense evidence in your meetings with people thee that North Korean scientists are laboring under profound constraints?
I think they certainly have been, but there's been a loosening up in the sense that select scientists now have an ability to travel to foreign countries, to meet and interact with Western scientists. From the North Korean government's point-of-view, this must be really nerve-wracking. It can be seen as possibly corrupting of people to allow them these freedoms.
North Korean scientists traveled during the Soviet days to Russia; there is a lot of traffic now to China. But these are seen as relatively benign trips. The fact that scientists now are going to be allowed to travel to Europe, and possibly even to the U.S., I mean, it really opens up a new windowboth for them, and for us. We have the possibility"we" meaning Western scientiststo interact with scientists from North Korea who could be in a position to influence future North Korean governments.
Right now, there's an acknowledgement that Kim Jong Il has a firm grip on power. The government is probably not going to change dramatically under his leadership. But he's 62 years old and if he were to suddenly die, the country would be thrown into chaos. The potential to make connections with scientists who obviously are among the elite in North Korea if they're able to interact with foreigners, to be in a position to have some influence and connection with people who may be integral to the formation of a new North Korean government someday, I think this is a very important opportunity which really must be seized upon.
Have you talked to anybody in the U.S. government about your trip?
They must be quite interested that you've been allowed to do this.
That's right. One of the most interesting parts of the trip was that diplomats with one of the embassies in PyongyangI'd prefer not to reveal which embassyset up an extraordinary meeting for me with the owner of one of the few private restaurants in Pyongyang. He was very well informed, and clearly had access to information that most North Koreans don't. He was talking about politics, asking me about what I thought of the upcoming U.S. election.
He clearly appeared to be more than just a restaurant owner, and that was in fact the case. Toward the end of our conversation he said, 'I want you to bring a message back to the State Department.' I said, 'But I'm just a journalist!' But the assumption is that any foreigner who comes to North Korea has some connection with their government. He assumed that I was briefed by the State Department before coming. So I said, 'Well, I'll try to do as you ask.'
He wanted to convey a message regarding the next round of six-way talks. He had two basic themes that he wanted to get across: One, from the North Korean government's point of viewand it's not clear who in the government he was representing; it was probably one factionfrom their point of view, the Chinese and Russians were interfering with the progress of the talks. And he said what North Korea really wants is bilateral talks with the U.S. This is a point that they've made in previous meetingshe was just reinforcing it. The other point was much more intriguing: He reiterated that North Korea was ready to give up its entire nuclear programboth weapons and the ability to generate nuclear powerand he said in exchange what they really want is clean energy technologies.
To put this in context, in the past, in exchange for not continuing with their nuclear workthere was a major agreement in 1994, the Agreed Frameworkone thing they would get would be shipments of heavy fuel oil. Which was fine, but the restaurant owner said what they want is something less pollutingthey want to expand wind power, for example. He was basically making the point that they're ready to give up their nuclear program, but what they want is modern, clean power sources.
So the State Department, and officials in Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who I also briefed, were pretty intrigued by that. It's unclear of course whether this will actually come up in the next round of six-way talks. As I say, he may have been representing one faction of the government, which may not have the greatest influence in these talks. But I thought it was extraordinary that they would try to pass a message through me. I think it reflects the fact that there are so few Americans who travel to North Korea that this was possible.
Is there good science being done now in North Korea, science that the West would find valuable?
That's a difficult question. I was shown some of their biotech labs where they claim for example to have cloned rabbits. Now, if they did succeed in cloning, that would imply a fairly sophisticated operation. But it's a claim I couldn't assess. It hasn't been published in the West. Outside scientists haven't seen the work. Since I'm not qualified to really judge it, I couldn't say. I saw pretty modern equipment, and I saw the rabbits. Whether they were actually cloned rabbits, I couldn't say. They have made claims that must be tantalizing to Western scientists. I mean, are they really capable of doing this? If they are, it implies a fairly talented cadre of scientists. But how prevalent this level of talent is throughout the entire North Korean scientific community, that's impossible for me to say at this time. At this stage, the jury's out. What it's really going to take is both North Korean scientists going abroad and giving talks and interacting with their Western peers, and Western scientists visiting these labs as well.
Was it your impression that science in North Korea is done mostly in the service of the state?
Almost entirely. The other options are limited. There are no NGOs of North Korean origin that I know of. There's practically no private industryit's all big state factories. Any scientific activity appears to be for the state and largely, in the civilian sector, focusing on areas where they can make inroads against famine, which is the major problem which they've been experiencing since the 1990s. What's hard to distinguish, really, is where they draw the line between civilian research and military research. I didn't see any facilities which were obviously geared toward the army and that kind of activity. A lot of analysts have a hard time distinguishing what role different labs play.
Tell me some ways in which you saw science working in the service of the state and your impressions about whether that results in bad science, or dubious science.
It's really difficult to say. One example would be the research team that carried out the cloning of the rabbits. Their research director said this was a personal instruction from Kim Jong Il in 1999. Kim Jong Il told them to breed hardier goats and rabbitsthey're livestock that can do well in the rugged North Korean landscape. And he gave the Institute of Experimental Biology the equipment to undertake cloning. They carried this out, they were personally thanked by Kim and they are now state heroes. Whether that scenario is entirely true, whether they succeeded in the cloning as they claim, that's almost beside the point. For the purpose of breeding better livestock and better goats and rabbits, they don't need cloning. There are easier ways. And the question is, why they would take this intensive, sophisticated scientific approach to a problem that they could make inroads with much more easily. That's a valid question that can be posed and it just goes back to the overarching issues that a lot of diplomats in Pyongyang point out. They don't really know how government policy is created or who's calling the shots below Kim. Their overall science strategy and structurethis is a black box.
One of the issues I wondered about in asking that question is the policy of giving human growth hormone to children who fall beneath a certain height or weight range. Isn't that ethically dubious?
I think certainly ethically questionable. There's a lot of controversy in Western countries about whether human growth hormone ought to be given to healthy but short children. The fact is it's doneit's not banned. But in North Korea, it's state policy that all children below a certain height will receive human growth hormone. They don't refer to issues such as consent, though I hasten to add that they may well seek and receive consent. They talk about studies they've done which show that it's effective, but there's no data that were available to me on whether they have experienced problems with some children reacting poorly to the treatment. So yes, there are questions that must be raised. And I'm sure there are a lot of Western scientists who would like to pursue this with their North Korean counterpartshow this policy was arrived at, how they decided their thresholds for children who would qualify for treatment.
Based on what you saw when you were in North Korea, do you come away optimistic that this seeming break could lead to positive developments?
I'm optimistic, that's for sure. I also have qualms. Any collaborations that do arise from this opening by the North Korean government have to be undertaken with very great care, with very close attention to what the goals of the joint research are. Certainly, as one Swedish diplomat put it, you want to in principle engage with the North Korean scientists. 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.
Based on what's happening in North Korea now, and based on your research, what do you envision in terms of science exchanges between the West and North Korea over the next two years, the next five years?
There's great potential, initially, for collaborations with European scientists to get off the ground quickly, because several European countries currently have diplomatic relations with North Korea. They have the diplomatic framework for undertaking cooperation rapidly. With the U.S., and the U.S. scientific community, things will move a bit more slowly. If there is a breakthrough in these nuclear talks that eventually leads to the establishment of ties between the two countries, I think there is the potential, again, for cooperation between U.S. and North Korean researchers to proceed quickly. The North Korean government has the policy now of encouraging their scientists to reach out. The officials at granting agencies who are interested in seeing these exchanges and joint activities take place are all mindful of the promise and the perilthe promise that engagement could really help forge ties with North Korea, and the peril of avoiding areas where cooperation and knowledge gleaned from it might be misused. People aren't naïve, and because of that, any cooperation that does develop would, I should hope, be based on a fairly solid foundation.
For more information, read the related story.
16 September 2004