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  • Olga Krasnyak

Building Trust: Science Diplomacy with North Korea



The hostility and mutual threats seen over the last year on the Korean peninsula have subsided recently and been replaced with peaceful interpersonal communications between state level leaders, policymakers, and lower levels of engagement between regional and major powers. Since the PeongChang Olympics, this shift has evolved into summit diplomacy. The Xi-Kim and Kim-Moon meetings have already been perceived as historical or at least crucial in reshaping regional geopolitics and easing tensions on the peninsula. Even though the real socio-political outcome of these summits has yet to be evaluated precisely, as well as the results of the upcoming the Trump-Kim meeting, one thing is clear — face-to-face diplomacy, building personal trust, and proving trustworthiness — are key components in normalizing inter-state relations. Whilst face-to-face interaction allows state leaders to better understand each other intentions, they can also be used to deepen and broaden contacts between states and nations.


North Korea’s sensibility to its security dilemma, however, means that continuing a direct line of diplomatic communication on a state level is a fundamentally important part of any strategy. While lifting sanctions on North Korea is unlikely to happen any time soon, the most important step will be determining the economic and social cooperation that can be conducted while sanctions are still in place. While North Korea is sanctioned it will not be able to maintain economic cooperation, but science diplomacy should be considered a viable alternative and an effective tool for engaging Pyongyang.


I argue that a strategy for developing healthy and effective relations with North Korea should include (1) using science diplomacy, (2) acknowledging the idea that the intensification of interpersonal engagements of state leaders paves the way in building the trust that ultimately leads to (3) opening channels for wider scientific cooperation with a country internationally.

First, science diplomacy, and related to that educational diplomacy, is a strong candidate to be implemented into a state’s foreign policy towards North Korea. With North Korea, science diplomacy might have limitations and will mostly be focused on educational elites, rather than various people-to-people interactions. For instance, during earlier decades, North Korea sent science interns, mostly physicists and engineers, to study in Soviet Union/Russia. North Korea’s current nuclear advancement is the result of this educational diplomatic strategy, though, something which any new effort at science diplomacy would need to avoid. Moreover, considering the fact that North Korea’s science organization and the functioning of state institutions is similar to the then-Soviet system, the top-down perspective of engagement seems reasonable and practically possible. Academic elites with access to the political system and diplomatic negotiations, are the social group best placed to carry on cooperation with intentional colleagues.


The broad involvement of the North Korean people is less likely to be possible now due to decades of isolation, and the ideological and cultural gulf that has developed with advanced countries. However, this isolation was not complete and contacts with the outside world (see aforementioned educational and scientific contacts with Russia) have been taking place regularly, however, mass people-to-people interactions should not be expected soon.

North Korea’s scientific advancement or, at least, compatibility in some academic fields to world science should be taken into account in developing a strategy. Science diplomacy is also an ideal means to engage with a country as it points out the country's best scientific and technological achievements and underlines potential for future cooperation on the international and regional level.


There are a few joint projects in which science diplomacy has proved effective. For example, a collaboration between Western and North Korean scientists in observing Mount Paektu's volcanic activity. This collaboration proceeded under American and British diplomatic support and supervision from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC and the Royal Society in London. Another involving, Elisabeth Chabano, a distinguished French archaeologist, is the only foreign archaeologist to work in North Korea studying the historical sites of Kaesong. This long-term scientific project is one of the assets of French scientific and cultural diplomacy, and is supervised by the French School of the Far East. It has resulted in not only academic papers, but also a joint archaeological exhibition in Pyongyang in 2014.


Other collaborations include a project with a Dutch team on genetic engineering and a partnership with chemists in the United Kingdom. The number of academic papers jointly published by North Korean scientists with international co-authors is rare and accommodates fewer than a hundred each year, but the number is rising. Although, there are diplomatic restrictions to be applied if scientific cooperation contributes to nuclear or military-related activities.


Second, the ways in which scientific cooperation and future engagement might effectively proceeded can be based on and relied upon interpersonal interactions of state leaders. In their recent books Marcus Holmes and Nicholas Wheeler explore the essence of face-to-face diplomacy in building trust between state leaders and the impact of such interactions on a process of (re)building peaceful and healthy inter-state relations


In acquiring trust, science diplomacy might work well, as a sophisticated and knowledge-based tool to be implemented into a state’s foreign policy. In the Cold War, personal connection and trust between Nixon and Brezhnev allowed the U.S. and the USSR to cooperate actively in scientific projects in outer space exploration and vaccine diplomacy. The mutual trust, peaceful intentions and actual scientific cooperation that resulted played well towards normalization relations and détente between the two superpowers which also contributed to maintaining the global order. There is a clear advantage to building up interpersonal trust, and the current round of summits over the Korean peninsula presents a unique opportunity.


Kim Jong-un’s high responsiveness to face-to-face diplomacy is a mechanism for retaining inter-state relations. When a country as controversial as North Korea is trying to integrate into international community, the results and expectations of the interactions need to remain positive. Put differently, if a county feels alienation and its leader is dismissed as ‘misbehaved,’ it will more likely lead to a country taking aggressive actions, as has happened with Putin’s Russia. If no one expects an authoritarian leader to behave well and follow the rules-based order, that leader will continue to refrain from meeting any international obligations. Acknowledging Kim’s accountability, even giving him credit and trust when it is earned, is a better way to normalize relations than the other way around.


Third, it might be that Kim’s intentions were meant to not only to stabilize the relationship with China and South Korea, but reassure the international community (read the U.S.) about North Korea’s trustworthiness and its peaceful intentions. In this case, visibility and transparency in overcoming diplomatic hurdles, intensifying diplomatic negotiations, and opening channels for cooperation and putting weight on scientific cooperation is a must. Without widening the channels for scientific cooperation, as well as for educational and cultural exchanges, Kim’s rhetoric of denuclearization might remain just a rhetoric to lift economic sanctions and decrease the threat of pre-emptive strikes. If real progress is not made, the inter-Korean summit will be remembered as highly symbolic, but merely a cosmetic diplomatic effort.


To wrap up, adopting a sophisticated long-term strategy of science diplomacy towards North Korea, intensifying face-to-face diplomacy with Kim to build interpersonal trust and prove mutual trustworthiness and political capability, suggesting and opening more channels for scientific cooperation, including cultural and educational exchanges with North Korean citizens, are the building blocks to engage wisely with the country formerly known as the Hermit Kingdom.


As published at the KEI's blog The Peninsula on 14 May 2018.

Research blog

© 2018-2020 Olga Krasnyak

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