North Korea ‘may have used foreign scientists to further its nuclear ambitions’

North Korea may have been exploiting collaboration with foreign scientists to bypass tough international sanctions and further its nuclear weapons programme, according to a new investigation. 

An analysis released by the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, flags at least 100 journals published jointly by North Korean and foreign scientists that have “identifiable significance for dual-use technology, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or other military purposes.” 

The findings, based on scientific journals spanning more than six decades, shed some light on how North Korea could have advanced so rapidly in building its nuclear and missiles technology despite long-running and harsh international penalties to prevent it from doing so. 

The large majority of the 1,304 research papers dating from 1956 to April 2018 involve natural sciences, engineering or mathematics, but among the identified “areas of concern or potential concern” are Romanian assistance with uranium purification and GPS-related work with Germany and China. 

Most of the research that warrants a closer look involves collaboration with Chinese scientists. 

In an interview with The Telegraph, Joshua Pollack, one of the lead authors on the report, highlighted work on the “isolation of high voltage cables” and on automotive technology as apparently “clear-cut” examples of potential breaches of the ban on the transfer of dual-use equipment. 

Kim Jong-un speaks to army officers after the testing of a new tactical weapon in NovemberCredit:

Dual-use in this sense would be any legitimate technology that could also be appropriated to assist the creation of WMD or nuclear reactors.

Joint Chinese and North Korean papers on automotive technology had set off alarm bells as they included a computer system that could make the axels on a truck operate independently, said Mr Pollack. 

“That is something that is not associated with an ordinary truck. There are civilian applications for that but in North Korea the obvious use for that is a missile launching vehicle,” he revealed. 

Such an extensive analysis of the risks of scientific collaboration with North Korea is rare, but it is not the first time the issue has been raised. 

Last year, Ken Kato, director of the Tokyo-based Human Rights in Asia, wrote to the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, urging them to close a legal loophole that allegedly allowed pro-North Korean scientists to remain in sensitive research positions. 

Students wear virtual reality goggles during a science class at Pyongyang Teachers' UniversityCredit:
Dita Alangkara/AP

“There are six Korean scientists who have been able to remain in sensitive research positions after claiming to have switched their political allegiances to South Korea,” Mr Kato claimed on Thursday. He has not yet received a UN response to his earlier enquiry. 

Mr Pollack and his team conclude that “UN member states must decide what research activities by their nationals or within their territory lie within the scope of sanctions, and which activities are better avoided in order to uphold the integrity of the sanctions regime." 

He added: “We do not want to hand Kim Jong-un a shortcut to advancing his military, advancing his weapons of mass destruction.”

But the complicated nature of scientific research also creates a dilemma about where to draw the line. 

Mr Pollack stressed that concerns over the misuse of some research should not lead to a “blanket ban” on scientific collaboration with the secretive regime, which prizes scientists so highly that it awards them with the best housing in the capital, Pyongyang. 

“You would have to have very strong reasons to shut the North Koreans out, bearing in mind that science contributes to human welfare and progress. It’s not all about weapons,” he said. 

North Korean children are taught to value science from an early ageCredit:
Eddie Mulholland/The Telegraph

Many Western researchers are heavily vetted by their governments before they can proceed.  

British cooperation with Pyongyang over the years has included “frontiers on mathematics”, engineering principles and, more recently, studies of Mount Paektu, a volcano on North Korea’s border with China. 

James Hammond, a geophysicist at the Birkbeck University of London, who has been working on the project alongside American, Chinese and North Korean colleagues, told NPR that it took almost two years to get US and UK government approval to carry in sensitive seismic equipment. 

Research on the volcano could prove vital to saving many lives if there was a future eruption, Mr Pollack pointed out. 

“I think it may be the case that we don’t do enough when there are humanitarian issues. In particular, epidemiology comes to mind. In both China and North Korea there is a lot of drug-resistant tuberculosis, for example… And disease doesn’t care that much about borders,” he said.  

Finally, he argued, scientific collaboration made sense from a strategic point of view. Towards the end of the Cold War, cooperation between Soviet and American scientific establishments helped to build bridges between the two enemies. 

“Having these bridges between scientists is not a bad thing from a perspective of enlightened self-interest,” he said.   

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