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Academic exchange with North vital in era of failed diplomacy: professor

Dec 21,2009
Stuart Thorson
When traditional diplomacy doesn’t work between two countries at loggerheads, where should they look for a breakthrough?

Stuart Thorson, professor of political science and international relations at Syracuse University, has his answers.

Thorson was part of a U.S. delegation that visited Pyongyang last week as part of science exchange programs between the two countries. And Thorson, the Donald P. and Margaret Curry Gregg professor and the director of the Korean Peninsula Affairs Center at the Maxwell School/Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs at Syracuse, is a believer in the workings of “science diplomacy.” In his recent academic paper, Thorson referred to it as “scientific cooperation aimed simultaneously at advancing scientific knowledge and improving and strengthening broader relations” between participating nations.

The United States and North Korea make for an odd couple in diplomacy. During this decade, the United States dubbed North Korea part of the “axis of evil.” The North has also justified its nuclear arms by claiming they provide protection against the U.S.

The digital library at Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang opened in 2006.By Stuart Thorson
Call him naive, but Thorson has faith in building trust through science exchanges and using that trust for something bigger.

“It’s through the trust [that] you build up opportunities for peaceful cooperation,” he said in an interview on Dec. 16, a day after he arrived in Seoul from Pyongyang. “[Scientists] know what we’re doing when we’re doing science, and then we can use that to build a base for a much broader set of cooperation.”

Thorson spent five days in the North Korean capital, meeting with faculty members at the Kim Chaek University of Technology and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and officials from the State Academy of Sciences. Kim Chaek University is the school that has maintained cooperation with Syracuse since 2001. The delegation included Peter C. Agre, the 2003 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Thorson declined to name any of the North Koreans he met and said he didn’t want to make potential problems for them.

Thorson said the Americans talked with North Korean scientists on issues such as developing young scientists and bringing more women into the field. The faculty at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology gave presentations on their research work. “We were quite impressed by it, especially since the level of their physical equipment is below what we have [in South Korea] and in the United States,” Thorson said.

The faculty “responded very well” to the Americans’ presence, he said.

“We were all delighted to have the young scientists [in North Korea] talking with us about their research,” he said. “A lot of [science] has been just kind of old people talking to old people about what they’d like to have happened. There were actually young people talking about what they’re really doing.”

The unlikely science partnership between the United States and North Korea dates back to 2001. With the help of Donald Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea serving then as head of Korea Society, Syracuse University contacted the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York. Often called the “New York channel,” the North Korean UN mission links the United States and North Korea.

Thorson said his previous experience in dealing with China helped him get started with North Korea.

“I had worked on a similar collaboration with China in the 1990s, so we were comfortable working with countries whose political system was very different than our own,” the professor said.

Thorson added that in working with China, he learned that science and technology are “very much based on shared protocols.”

“That helps us build trust,” he said. “As we share things in common, then I think we can begin to talk about other things sometimes, or perhaps even more importantly, people who talk to us can learn and begin to be more comfortable.

“This is especially important, in my view, to political science regarding North Korea and the United States, where in both countries, the other has been demonized and viewed as something other than a real place with real people,” Thorson added.

Syracuse found its partner in the Kim Chaek University of Technology. They’ve since cooperated in building a digital library at Kim Chaek in 2006, and Syracuse has helped North Korean students at the International Collegiate Programming Contest, run by the Association for Computing Machinery.

Their partnership led to the founding of the U.S.-DPRK [North Korea] Scientific Engagement Consortium in 2007. It’s made up of the U.S. Civilian Research & Development Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Syracuse University and the Korea Society.

Thorson pointed to the digital library as an example of a positive outcome for the U.S.-North Korea science exchange. When the New York Philharmonic visited Pyongyang in 2008, some accompanying journalists went to the library and even accessed their Facebook pages from computers there.

Though Thorson realizes U.S.-North Korea relations do have an impact on science exchanges, he also thinks the worse the situation, the more such non-traditional diplomacy becomes necessary.

“My impression is that as relations get worse between the two countries, both countries realize that these informal channels are all the more important,” Thorson said. “It’s all the more reason to keep at science diplomacy with North Korea. The more difficult the problem, the more effort it takes to try to resolve that.

“If it were easy, it wouldn’t be much fun,” he said. “It’s frustrating sometimes. It’s also rewarding.”


By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]





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