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Film Highlights AAAS Science Diplomacy Efforts with North Korea

Senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy Norman P. Neureiter speaks about science diplomacy with North Korea.

In December 2009, former AAAS president Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, led a non-governmental delegation to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea as a member of the U.S.-DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium. At the end of the remarkable meeting in Pyongyang, he "felt compelled" to give the vice-president of the country's Academy of Sciences "the most precious gift I thought I could give, and that was the tie I wore when I presented the Nobel address in Stockholm, and asked him to give it to the first member of his country, the DPRK, who will win the Nobel Prize."

This anecdote was included in the documentary " A Peace of Science: Diplomacy with North Korea ," which was screened by the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy on July 21. The documentary highlights science diplomacy efforts in North Korea, including the work of the U.S.-DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium and an international research project focused on Mount Paektu, an active volcano on the Chinese-North Korean border.

Sudip Parikh, the CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals opened the screening by saying that "AAAS was proud to be involved with this important work as a member of the U.S.-DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium, leading delegations to North Korea, and supporting American and British scientists working on the Mount Paektu research project."

Linda Staheli, the founding director of Global Co Lab Network and former senior staff associate for government affairs at CRDF Global where she co-founded the U.S.-DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium, produced the film with support from The Henry Luce Foundation. "The documentary was created with the purpose of educating future practitioners of diplomacy," she said at the screening, noting that the project also includes a resource page for students and policymakers.

The U.S.-DPRK Scientific Engagement Consortium brought North Korean scientists to several AAAS Annual Meetings in Boston, Chicago and San Diego, and sent scientists to the DPRK as well. The visits helped establish what kinds of collaborations might be possible between researchers in the two countries, according to the film.

"In North Korea, science is driven by national priorities-cyberweapons, cybersecurity," said Richard Stone, a former Science international news editor and now senior science editor for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Tangled Bank Studios, in the film. "That's pretty much off-limits to Western collaboration. Areas that are open for collaboration are ecological restoration, trying to restore North Korea's forests that were damaged … fisheries, developing renewable energy."

A unique opportunity for collaboration began in 2011, when British and American scientists joined their colleagues in North Korea to monitor and study Mount Paektu, which was showing signs of activity.

After the film screening, several of the interviewees in the film, including Agre, Staheli, Stone, and James Hammond, a geophysicist at Birkbeck, University of London and director of the Mt. Paektu Research Center, answered questions from the attendees. During the Q&A, Hammond said that trust between the international group of scientists was difficult early on, especially with the need for translators, "but that got better over time as we got to know one another, as we deliver on promises such as having research visits to London, as we jointly publish papers together. That meant we can establish that trust and that means we are doing much more ambitious projects now than we were initially."

Along with North Korea, the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy has led scientific delegations to Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, and Syria. Kim Montgomery, the director of international affairs and science diplomacy at AAAS said, "We are looking to increase our efforts in science diplomacy, including projects focused on using science engagements to develop and strengthen relations between countries."

Although the consortium's work ended in 2014 and formal relations between the U.S. and North Korea remain severed, projects like the Mt. Paektu collaboration demonstrate the unique role that science can play in breaking down international conflict and isolation, according to Norman P. Neureiter, senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy and the first Science and Technology Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State.

At a video shown at the screening, Neureiter said science is "a basis for finding better relationships which maybe works out and affects the politicians on both sides and maybe makes a better world. We all hope so. It doesn't always work, but it can work, and it is a tremendous first step at building those relationships. Science is a powerful instrument of mutual engagement — powerful and positive."

[Credit for associated image: Richard Stone]