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A big deal

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
June 17, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 25


The news last week was dominated by the historic summit between North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who met in Singapore on June 12. The outcomes of their conversation are the matter of much debate, and although the specifics remain nebulous, the accepted view is that the U.S. president committed to end joint military exercises with South Korea and made other unspecified “security guarantees” in exchange for the North Korean leader’s promise to abandon the nation’s nuclear weapons programs.

Besides the meeting with Trump and recent encounters with the leaders of China and South Korea, Kim had hinted that change was afoot in an April speech, when he said that North Korea would put an end to nuclear tests and turn its attention to economic growth fueled by investments in science and education. This points at a new focus on diplomacy for North Korea, and it is a big deal—if it indeed becomes a reality. The international community is hopeful that the talks, discussions, and shift in focus will bring about the prospect of peace, or at least improved relations, greater openness, and some steps toward denuclearization.

It’s a good thing that Kim sees science as key to his country’s future. Besides its potential economic impact, science is a subject around which one can build relationships. Much of the country’s research has been driven by what would be useful to its military. Currently, its main research areas, judging by publication output, are engineering, physics, chemistry, and materials science. Further investments could allow these and other fields to flourish, enriching the scientific fabric of the country. If North Korea is more open, then we should expect an increase in scientific output beyond the tens of papers it publishes each year in international journals. We should also expect an increase in the number and diversity of its collaborations. North Korea’s biggest collaborators are China, followed by Germany and South Korea. Russia has long been a partner on nuclear energy research. Greater openness is likely to transform the way science is done in North Korea.

Related to this, ACS Nano just published an editorial titled “Envisioning Scientific Innovation in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone: A Step toward Economic Progress and Global Peace” (DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.8b04249). The editorial focuses on the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a narrow corridor—4 km wide, 250 km long—that extends across the peninsula and acts as a physical barrier between North and South Korea. This natural border, which features wetlands, mountains, valleys, forests, and rich wildlife, was formed upon the signing of the armistice agreement in 1953 after the devastating Korean War. It has land mines, barbed-wire fences, and a strong military presence on both sides. The DMZ’s inaccessibility has allowed damaged forests and farmlands to rehabilitate and return to a natural state, while the land to the north has suffered deforestation along with environmental degradation from military operations, and the land to the south has grown in population and suffered the consequences of that—habitat destruction and fragmentation and pollution of waterways and farmlands by pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial and municipal waste. The DMZ has become what the authors of the editorial call an ecological sanctuary. They point to the field of pollen materials research based on pollen grains present in the DMZ as an example of an area in which scientific cooperation and innovation between North and South Korea is possible. This small piece of shared land has the potential to turn a low-value and abundant material into a high-value material with medical and pharmaceutical applications, they suggest. A small step toward peace.


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