What science is like in North Korea

Isolated from the rest of the world, North Korean researchers struggle to balance rigorous scientific work with the demands of a dictator.

What science is like in North Korea

Isolated from the rest of the world, North Korean researchers struggle to balance rigorous scientific work with the demands of a dictator.

When Kim Hyeongsoo, 53, got his degree in biology, he hoped to be part of a team that conducted research of global significance. But Hyeongsoo was born in North Korea, which had a different mission for him: figure out how Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il could eat without getting fat.

The Kims “asked us to identify how they can excrete what they eat without any absorption of calories,” Hyeongsoo told me through a translator.

He and his fellow food scientists worked at a heavily guarded facility, where every project had to be approved by the regime, he said, and they had little access to international science. They tried to understand diseases such as hardening of the arteries, cerebral thrombosis, and cerebral hemorrhage, without the benefit of being able to build on knowledge that is widespread throughout the rest of the world. Hyeongsoo told me he worked at the Mansumugang (Long Life Health) Institute from 1990 to 1995, and that it employed 100 scientists and 30 assistants and animal caretakers at the time. The scientists studied life extension and weight management for the ruling Kim family, even as food was scarce for the average citizen.

Whenever they came up with a food that could enhance the health of the dictators, Hyeongsoo said it was immediately sent to the Kims. Their work included studies on Italian olive oil, fiber, and a sweet Chinese fruit whose sugar content isn’t entirely absorbed by the body, the extracts of which were added to the Kims’ meals to improve the way they tasted. An entire team conducted research on alcohol and tobacco, “which the Kims really enjoyed,” he said.

Electric fences circled the compound, as the health of the Kims was a state secret. The scientists got free food once a week, but like all scientists in the country, Hyeongsoo said he and his colleagues were forbidden from discussing their work. “[I had a colleague] with a PhD in medicine who told his friends what he was studying. He was arrested as a political prisoner together with his family,” he said.

Kim Hyeongsoo, a North Korean defector who worked as a scientist in the country.

Kim Hyeongsoo, a North Korean defector who worked as a scientist in the country.

Few findings from North Korean scientists make it in international journals, so the world knows little about what they do. What we do know comes from defectors and the few foreign scientists who have been invited to the country when the government deemed it necessary to get outside help, such as when Western volcanologists were asked to help monitor the potentially dangerous Mount Paektu.

I was introduced to Hyeongsoo through Teach North Korean Refugees, a nonprofit organization that prepares North Korean refugees for life in South Korea. He left North Korea in 2009 and now lives in Seoul, South Korea.

Hyeongsoo’s experience was similar to that of many researchers in North Korea: absurd, sycophantic, isolated, and stressful. And yet scientists in this country still manage to maintain a leading nuclear weapons program and make other strides, including developing an artificial knee joint, ultrasound machine, and CT scanner. Nuclear and chemical weapons get priority in North Korea, Hyeongsoo said, followed by research into the health of the ruling family. Isolation means North Korean scientists have a hard time getting access to the global knowledge base, much less specialized or expensive equipment. When they encounter a problem, the regime expects them to find solutions on their own, Hyeongsoo said. Chemists, for instance, find smugglers to sell them reagents brought in from China.

American scientist Robert Duane Shelton, who studied what North Korean researchers publish, said that scientists there often do more theoretical work than experiments, which implies that they have inadequate equipment. “In the fields of biological sciences, they had obvious access to laboratories,” Shelton said. “In the physical sciences, though, and engineering, it was more mathematical simulations rather than experimentation, which suggests that maybe that they had limited access to those kinds of layouts.”

Absurd, sycophantic, isolated, and stressful

North Korean scientists must also carry out their research while perpetuating the propaganda that upholds the regime.

When they publish in local journals, their articles begin by “citing the teachings of the supreme leaders” and extolling the virtues of voluntary research as “an honorable, revolutionary task for the people.” The findings only take one or two pages, which is short compared to mainstream U.S. scientific journals. A great proportion of the papers are devoted to folk medicine, which is claimed to be effective 95 percent of the time.

North Korean scientists are sometimes praised by the regime. Biologist Beak Seol-Heui, who claimed she could make the plant Gi-reum-gol (기름골 or Cyperus esculentus) grow three times bigger, was pronounced a “secret hero of the country” in 1979. She hoped to manufacture oil from the plant and fix North Korea’s oil shortage. The regime promoted her to chief of the Institute of Biology and Plant Biology at the National Academy of Sciences, according to Hyeongsoo, and there was even a film made about her, The 14th Winter (14번째의 겨울), so named in honor of her 14 years of research, during which she dedicated herself to work and remained unmarried.

Her so-called achievements were used by the propaganda machine to praise the country’s greatness. “North Korean citizens were forced to watch the movie,” Hyeongsoo said. “They had to write reviews and discuss it in open public debates.” Eventually, others tried to replicate her study, and it turned out that the plant was smaller rather than larger using her methods.

“After that, she faced criticism [from the regime],” Hyeongsoo said. “Scientists don’t believe what the propaganda feeds them, but they cannot discredit it either. You have to think what the party tells you to think.”

Today, propaganda is even less effective that it was a few decades ago, as information tends to spread even in North Korea. Most scientists know how to operate a computer, own an FM radio, and use SD cards and thumb drives, which are sometimes brought from China with information from the outside world, Hyeongsoo said. Still, disregarding reality is often a key to survival for North Korean scientists.

A doctor visits a patient at a village clinic in Ryongsan-ri, North Hwanghae province, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of Pyongyang, North Korea.

A doctor visits a patient at a village clinic in Ryongsan-ri, North Hwanghae province, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) southeast of Pyongyang, North Korea.

Scientists working in North Korea know that speaking too freely about research can be dangerous. Hyeongsoo had a colleague at Kim Il-sung University who got a job in a nuclear physics lab after graduation that was “completely secluded and under strict supervision,” he said. “I’ve never heard from him since.”

Those who travel abroad are also subject to the rule of silence. A group of 13 North Korean scientists and scholars went to Germany for a fellowship program that ended in 2008, conducted by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Their Western peers found that they were highly capable, but once they returned to North Korea, there was no way to communicate with them. Shelton, who interviewed the German researchers who worked with the North Koreans, said, “they lost all contact with them, because getting emails from abroad raises suspicions and discourages collaboration.” The expectation of silence also extends to foreign researchers who spent time in North Korea. These researchers did not want to speak on the record for fear of jeopardizing their standing with the North Korean government.

Foreign scientists who travel to North Korea always have a government-appointed minder watching them, and those who plan to return are always careful about what they say.

“The lack of internet access and freedom in North Korea stifles creativity, innovative development, and consequently economic growth,” said one foreign researcher who traveled to the capital of Pyongyang several times in the past decade. He asked to remain anonymous to preserve his ability to return. The citizens “are completely driven by fear and operate in survival mode,” he said.

A dark-colored crystal worn as jewelry is believed to have healing properties

The quirks of science in North Korea also apply to the medical field. Doctors have limited access to international research and folk medicine is widely used. A dark-colored crystal worn as jewelry is believed to have healing properties, for example.

“They say when you wear it out in the sunshine, it purifies your blood,” said Heidi Linton, executive director of the non-profit Christian Friends of Korea. She adds that North Korean doctors genuinely believed this. “They wanted us to take [the crystal] back to Stanford and prove [that it worked].” Like doctors in Vietnam and some parts of China, North Koreans often give their patients medicinal herbs, Linton said. “They’ve had nothing to treat them with, other than cordial med,” referring to a medicinal liquor. She told me that the doctors there really care about their patients, but many attempts at helping North Koreans get health care have failed, because of red tape and a difficult way of doing business. “At the spur of the moment, they’ll cancel your trip you’ve been planning for three months,” she said. “In 22 years I’ve seen so many good-hearted attempts just go down the tubes.”

Linton has been to North Korea 50 times helping patients who suffer from tuberculosis and hepatitis, both of which are epidemics in the country. She brought them Western medicine, including antibiotics, and she said they understand the necessity of the drugs. However, they still see traditional local cures, such as red ginseng and medicinal herbs, as a source of national pride.

There are North Korean doctors who practice Western medicine. American neurosurgeon Kee B. Park has met several while working in Pyongyang, where he also has a medical license.

He said North Korean doctors can perform fairly sophisticated surgery, including microsurgery for brain tumors or treatment of vascular malformation like aneurysm. “They are technically as good as any surgeons I’ve seen anywhere,” he said. “They’re conscientious, very detail oriented, and very careful in the care of their patients. They think things through.”

Dr. Park said the Pyongyang hospital where he works cannot, however, be compared with those in the U.S. when it comes to equipment. “I have a microscope in North Korea, a very simple microscope, maybe $10,000 or $12,000. In the U.S., it’s not unusual for every hospital to have a microscope that costs $500,000,” he said. “I would argue that in the vast majority of conditions we could do an excellent and safe job with the lower model.”

Park hopes science can build bridges when diplomacy fails. Across an operating table, he said, politics no longer matter. Although Americans and North Koreans are technically at war, he and his North Korean colleagues become one team. “We’re now working towards a common enemy, the disease. And that feeling is indescribable. I wish everybody could experience this.”

When he finishes an operation, the hospital treats him with snacks and coffee. “They want to put their best foot forward like anyone else,” he said. In the evening, he and the North Korean doctors have meals and sing-alongs together. “We’re no longer enemies. We are one.”

The rocket model in North Korea's Temple of Science and Technology.

The rocket model in North Korea's Temple of Science and Technology.

Like the countries in the former Eastern Bloc, North Korea needs skilled people to reverse engineer machines and devices made in other countries, several sources said. Therefore, it emphasizes education in science and technology.

This is true even in pop culture. A local version of the Spice Girls, Moranbong Band, launched the ‘Let’s study’ superhit a few years ago. The lyrics are:

“Knowledge is power / So when we devote our passion to it / Our science and technology will flourish.”

Among North Korean schools, the Kim Il-sung University and the Kim Chaek University of Technology produce the most research papers published in international journals, but there is also the privately-founded Pyongyang University for Science and Technology (PUST), where foreign professors, largely supported by Evangelical Christian movements, teach the children of the North Korean elite.

Computer scientist Wesley Brewer worked there from when it opened, in October 2010, until May 2017. He went to PUST hoping that science and technology could help grow a generation more open to the Western culture, and this could eventually decrease the tensions between North Korea and the U.S. In Brewer’s last three years at PUST, he was vice president for research.

“We have tried hard to focus on research which would be helpful to the everyday livelihood of the North Korean people while avoiding research that would contribute to the advancement of North Korea’s military,” Brewer said.

PUST is doing research on natural farming, soil fertility, pesticides, and food production. Students also work on projects in both traditional and modern medicine, from testing an anticancer drug based on a plant to predicting the likelihood of a patient getting cancer based on genome expression levels.

Undergraduates are also interested in renewable energy, and have designed a small solar powered lamp later manufactured by a local factory. There are more than 3 million mobile phones in North Korea, and since the country faces power outages on a regular basis, most users own solar chargers.

In another effort to open itself up to the world, Pyongyang University for Science and Technology started hosting international conferences in 2011. Researcher Robert Duane Shelton was there that year to present a paper. He said he was instructed to say a couple of nice words about the Kims onstage before going into his findings. Despite that protocol, he felt optimistic. Local researchers looked capable, and he was eager to work with them. “North Korean scientists have been able to make contributions despite handicaps that would frustrate Western researchers,” Shelton wrote in a paper about scientific collaboration with North Korea. He hoped he would inspire other European and American researchers to come to the country.

But since the U.S. State Department imposed a travel ban on its citizens entering North Korea last year, such cooperation is currently at a standstill. Given the political context, Shelton said he is no longer optimistic when it comes to science building bridges between his own country and one of its most vocal enemies.