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New Report Warns of the Perils of Scientific Collaborations with North Korea

Partner Countries Include China, USA, Australia and Germany

By Ramesh Jaura

Photo: Kim Jong Un visits with scientists at Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang. Source: Korean Central Television, September 29, 2018.

NEW YORK (IDN) – Direct collaboration between North Korean and foreign scientists including those from China, Australia, the United States, Germany, and Romania, is playing "an expanding role" in the regime’s pursuit of technological advancement, a new study has found.

Published on December 19, this study comes two months after Foreign Policy (FP) carried an article by Colum Lynch on September 20, 2018 with the headline, North Korea Evades Sanctions – But a feud between Russia and the U.S. has kept the document from being published.

Referring to the 148-page document, Lynch wrote: "A report written by a United Nations panel of experts has determined that North Korea is evading international sanctions with “seeming impunity,” but a bitter behind-the-scenes battle between Russia and the United States has prevented the report from being made public."

The study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey says: The North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has, in fact, described research and development as crucial to his regime’s efforts to overcome the international sanctions regime. "By developing key technologies indigenously, North Korea seeks to reduce its need to import sensitive goods that might otherwise be denied to it through export controls, sanctions enforcement, or lack of funds," notes the study.

therefore calling for UN member states to "decide what research activities by their nationals or within their territory lie within the scope of Security Council sanctions, and which activities are better avoided, even if they are otherwise permissible."

"The establishment of an agreed set of common principles or guidelines is warranted," asserts the study by Joshua H. Pollack and Scott LaFoy with contributions from Andrea Berger, Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, Chen Kane, Miles Pomper, Ramya Ramjee, and Grace Vedock.

To assess the extent of this activity, and to identify collaborative research involving dual-use technologies and other technologies of potential military significance, the CNS developed a new dataset capturing publications co-authored by North Korean scientists and foreign scientists between 1958 and April 2018.

About 95 percent of the articles in the CNS dataset concern the natural sciences, engineering, computer science, or mathematics, mirroring the general orientation of the North Korean scientific establishment. "China is the most heavily represented partner country, followed distantly by Germany," the study finds.

It notes that based on an initial evaluation, at least 100 published articles jointly authored by North Korean and foreign scientists have "identifiable significance for dual-use technology, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or other military purposes."

Areas of concern or potential concern include: uranium purification (Romania, 1991–92); insulation of high-voltage cables for nuclear power plants (China, 2007–12); materials science with a potential nuclear application (China, 2012); damping technology applicable to space/missiles (China, 2016–17); mathematical modelling applicable to space/missiles (China, 2006–16); special heavy vehicles and production systems (China, 2011–16); precision machine tools (China, 2016); carbon composites (China, 2012); other materials science with potential military applications (China, 2011–18); and optical tracking and image parsing (China, 2011–16).

Other areas in which joint articles have been published include: remote sensing and satellite-imagery processing (China and United States 2010–13); GPS-related work (Germany and China, 2007 and 2016); laser and plasmonics research (Germany and China, 1998–2016); biological research potentially of a dual-use character (China and Australia, 1987–2017); and Cybersecurity (China, 2012).

"Some of these activities may be contrary to provisions in international and national sanctions regimes," cautions the study. Because UN Security Council resolutions forbid the provision to North Korea of "technical training, advice, services, or assistance" related to a list of banned items that includes dual-use and military-related "technology."

The definition of "technical assistance," for this purpose, includes the transfer of technical data, instruction, skills, training, working knowledge, and consulting services. The sanctions regime may therefore provide leverage against the continuation of some areas of collaborative research.

The CNS study further points out that North Korean scientists collaborate most often with colleagues from the People's Republic of China, followed by Germany. Of the 1,139 collaborations in the dataset, 913 involve China and 139 involve Germany. These totals overlap, as there are instances of tri-national collaboration that count toward both the Chinese and German totals.

Besides, collaborations with Chinese researchers are wide-ranging. They do not cluster around any particular topic. Collaborations with German researchers centre on laser and plasmonics research, particularly with Joachim Herrmann at the Max Born Institute in Berlin.

After Germany, the top collaborating states were the United States (16 entries), Australia (14 entries), and Romania (13 entries). Romanian collaboration has primarily involved petrochemical research with researchers at the Oil & Gas University of Ploiesti, but publications on uranium purification were published in 1991 and 1992 with researchers from the Institutul Politehnic ‘Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej’ București, now called the Polytechnic Institute of Bucharest.

The study calls attention to the fact that certain partners whose presence in the dataset was expected, such as India, did not appear. Others, such as Japan and Russia, are minimally represented. "It is not clear why these states, which are known to have academic and industrial relationships with North Korea, have little or no presence in the dataset."

It may be, adds the study, that the source databases do not effectively capture publications from these countries, or that the academic relationships in question are of a structure that was not covered by this project’s search parameters.

The report further notes that minimal U.S.-North Korean collaboration was found. These collaborations were largely of no concern, including "benign work in geology and library sciences." Instances of collaborative remote sensing/satellite imagery work have been placed in the "Possible Concern" category.

The study notes that under Kim Jong Un, who assumed power in late 2010, scientists have become an increasingly visible and privileged class, receiving public honors, awards, and special favors such as new housing developments near their workplaces. Scientists, as opposed to Party or military officials – or any other group besides the Kims themselves – have been credited with the country's achievements in developing missiles and nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong Un has specifically portrayed research and development as crucial to overcoming the international sanctions regime. In remarks delivered at a multiday "national meeting of scientists and technicians" in Pyongyang in November 2013, Kim referred to the need to overcome the "scientific and technological blockade and sanctions policy" of "the imperialists" (i.e., the United States) by investing "great strength" into advancing national science and technology, the study notes.

The level of scientific and technological development, he said, "determines national power and decides the country’s and nation’s status and future."

In the run-up to the Seventh Party Congress in May 2016, Kim’s major speeches began to emphasize the importance of national "self-reliance and self-development" based on investments in science and technology. This slogan has now replaced Kim Jong Il’s "military-first politics" as the primary ideological theme of the Kim Jong Un era. [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 December 2018]

Photo: Kim Jong Un visits with scientists at Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang. Source: Korean Central Television, September 29, 2018.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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