Seizing Opportunities for Engagement With the DPRK

The Mount Paektu region. (Source: Rita Willaert)

On the face of it, engagement with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, the formal name for North Korea) seems impossible. International sanctions have become so pervasive that people, institutions and governments are reluctant to try. However, our experience of science engagement with the DPRK reveals a more nuanced reality. While engagement is fraught with challenges and requires flexibility from practitioners, institutions and funders, it can be done within existing sanctions and, importantly, sustained during geopolitical shifts.

Sanctions are designed to create barriers to certain kinds of activity. When targeted, this has limited impacts on most interactions. However, when sanctions become wide-reaching, it means all activity must pass some level of scrutiny. This process, by which non-targeted engagement is reviewed by government/intergovernmental actors, can be time-consuming and financially burdensome, but it does present a mechanism by which activity can continue in the face of severe sanctions. Of greater significance are the unintended consequences of sanctions, especially the perceived risks that most institutions and governments associate with any activity involving the DPRK. These are harder to overcome. Often, this means opportunities—when they do arise—are missed, and chances to build relationships in areas of mutual interest are lost.

If there is a desire to engage with the DPRK now and in the future, then it is essential that this change. Our experience shows that institutions must be assured they will not be penalized for working with the DPRK in safe areas of engagement. International Governments and the United Nations (UN) could facilitate this by officially stating that there are certain strategic areas of mutual benefit where engagement is encouraged to help reassure funders, institutions and governments that it is worth trying.

Volcano Diplomacy

In 2002, the long-dormant volcano Mount Paektu (also known as Changbaishan in China) woke up. Monitoring stations in the DPRK and China recorded a sharp increase in small earthquakes located directly beneath the volcano. Subsequent release of volcanic gas and ground deformation pointed to magma recharge beneath the volcano. Activity reduced in 2005 and has now returned to normal levels, but it has led to renewed interest in the volcano and a desire to understand what might happen if it were to erupt in the future.

In 2011, DPRK scientists invited international volcanologists to visit the country to collaborate in studying the volcano. This visit set in chain a 12-year partnership, leading to a new understanding of its magmatic system and history.

The success of this project relied on the enthusiasm (and, to some degree, naivety to the challenges ahead) of scientists and the strong support from institutions and governments that identified a unique chance for engagement with the DPRK. At the time, we had limited experience in dealing with sanctions, which gave us the freedom to design our collaboration with our colleagues in the DPRK in an unreserved fashion, building a project underpinned by the scientific objectives that had been developed with our DPRK colleagues. It was easy to establish a project of equal partnership, linking our experience working on volcanoes around the world with the decades of knowledge on Mount Paektu brought by our DPRK partners. We were grateful to receive funding from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and The Richard Lounsbery Foundation to pursue this work. However, as we attempted to start the project, it became clear sanctions would create significant challenges.

The first challenge was to establish trust between us and our DPRK partners. To do this, we sought to co-develop and sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between all parties that expressed the aims of both sides. This non-legally binding document, involving no financial transactions or commitments, was a step too far for my host institution at the time (Imperial College London), which refused to sign any documents with the DPRK due to the potential reputational risk.

Fortunately, our funders at AAAS and the Royal Society of London in the United Kingdom (UK) had already met to discuss the power of science diplomacy, including how science can be useful in building relationships in periods of political strain. They recognized the potential for this project to develop long-lasting engagement with the DPRK in an area with minimal overlap with the targets of sanctions. The Royal Society agreed to sign the MoU on our behalf, and we continue to work under their auspices.

These perceived risks also extend to the outputs of our research. A number of publishers of academic journals are nervous about publishing work, including DPRK authors. While our experience has been to encounter delays while publishers check their legal requirements, it has not precluded us publishing our jointly authored papers on Paektu Volcano. However, we note that some publishers have a policy of not offering publishing services to DPRK authors. This includes peer review and editing, effectively halting opportunities to publish across several journals.

The presence of a UK Embassy in Pyongyang and the UK’s permanent membership in the UN Security Council has played a unique role in helping facilitate this research collaboration. The UK government’s policy in North Korea is one of critical engagement, where it is robustly critical of the country for weapons development, among other areas, while also seeking to identify mutually beneficial and safe areas for engagement to build trust and understanding over the long term.

This policy of critical engagement proved important for our project. Initially, as we navigated the process of gaining export licenses for our equipment, the UK government showed patience and a willingness to navigate the complex legal frameworks so the project could succeed. The biggest hurdle came in November 2016 with the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2321, which explicitly sanctioned any scientific collaboration with the DPRK. Despite this stipulation, and with an understanding volcanology was far from the kind of science cooperation this resolution intended to block, the UK Government expressed enthusiasm for our project to continue and worked with the UN 1718 Committee to understand how this may be possible. Through a series of letters, the UK Government informed the 1718 Committee of our work, how it did not violate the sanctions, and that it should continue, which it does to this day.

Despite our success in building a sustained engagement with the DPRK in volcanology, our project shows that unintended consequences from sanctions can emerge as a formidable barrier to sustained engagement with the DPRK.

Opportunities for Engagement

Our scientific collaboration with the DPRK shows that sanctions themselves, while a hurdle, are not the biggest hindrance to engagement. Rather, the perceived risks to institutions and funders are. Without the bravery of the Royal Society to be a co-signatory with DPRK institutions and the AAAS and the Richard Lounsbery Foundation to fund the work (and their patience as we worked through getting sanctions exemptions/licenses), the project would have fallen at the first hurdle. Today, my host institution (Birkbeck, University of London) is supportive and has helped us set up the Mount Paektu Research Centre (MPRC). This gives us the institutional backing that can help bring in funds and legal and administrative support when applying for export licenses. It hopefully means we can grow and expand science engagement with the DPRK.

Finding further opportunities for this kind of engagement is not difficult; it is a matter of talking with people from the DPRK to find areas of mutual interest. In our case, we are exploring topics in environmental science, ranging from documenting and monitoring the unique biodiversity within the DPRK, understanding risks associated with environmental hazards and how these may change due to climate change, and, of course, we continue to work to understand more about Mount Paektu. These opportunities are also communicated officially beyond trusted partners. For example, the DPRK voluntary national review on the implementation of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development focuses on progress towards the UN sustainability goals. Within this, the DPRK highlights that it seeks international cooperation to build resilience against natural disasters.

Moving Forward

As relations with the DPRK continue to evolve, the central question becomes how the international community can seize and take advantage of opportunities for meaningful engagement. Despite a myriad of challenges, our project has shown that through science, it is possible to build a collaboration of equal partnership, which can be sustained during geopolitical changes. It demonstrates that engagement is possible today, even within the current sanctions regime, building relationships that can underpin future partnerships if or when the geopolitical environment is ready.

However, finding new partners willing to engage with the DPRK in an environment where they fear reputational damage and convincing financial institutions to get or stay involved is becoming more difficult. If the international community recognizes the value of engagement in safe spaces and wants these engagement opportunities to be taken, then a clear signal must be sent that, despite the restrictions imposed by the current sanctions regime, there are activities that are desirable—and even encouraged—and offer reassurance to institutions, funders and banks that collaboration with the DPRK is not only possible, but worthwhile.

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