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North Korean physicists forge rare exchange deal with Italian university

Researchers from the isolated state get a chance to study neuroscience at prestigious institution.

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Students walk across Kim Il-sung Square with Pyongyang city in the background.

Students from North Korea can’t be trained in “advanced physics” by foreign researchers.Credit: AYAKA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

Researchers at North Korea’s leading university have struck an unusual agreement with an Italian institute that will enable physicists from the isolated state to be trained in neuroscience.

The agreement is a rare opportunity for North Korean physicists. Sanctions normally prevent them from being trained by foreign scientists, because of their field’s association with nuclear research. The arrangement will enable North Korean physicists to apply their quantitative abilities to another research field: computational neuroscience.

The deal, forged earlier this month and approved by the Italian foreign ministry, is between the physics department at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang and the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA), a university in Trieste, Italy, which has previously hosted North Korean researchers on an ad hoc basis.

The deal formalizes the institutes’ relationship and makes it easier for Kim Il-sung physicists to go to Italy to study under and collaborate with SISSA researchers. The arrangement also makes it easier for SISSA scientists to go to Kim Il-sung University, for example to teach. SISSA researchers expect two or three North Korean students to come to the institute each year.

Hak-Chol Pak, head of physics at the university, which publishes nearly half of the isolated state’s modest scientific output, told Nature that his university wanted to create a neuroscience institute and needed to develop expertise that isn’t available in his country. The agreement was independent of politics, he says. “We are scientists, motivated only by science.”

Nuclear sanctions

SISSA’s director, physicist Stefano Ruffo, says he is happy to help students train in the university’s cognitive-neuroscience department.

The roots of the agreement go back to 2016, when the United Nations declared international sanctions against North Korea aimed at quelling the nation’s nuclear programme. The restrictions prevent other nations from training the Asian state’s researchers in topics including “advanced physics”, although the precise fields that fall under this term aren’t defined.

Four North Korean students who had completed master’s courses at the prestigious International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste were already studying for PhDs in cosmology at SISSA. Following an Italian newspaper report that North Korean physicists were studying at the ICTP, SISSA became concerned that their fields of study might have been covered by the sanctions.

To prevent the students having to return home defeated, Ruffo arranged for them to switch the topics of their PhDs. “Emotionally it was a very tough moment for me,” he says. “These were all exceptional students, and they were also human beings.”

Two students switched to study neuroscience. One of them, Chol Jun Kang, joined the group of computational neuroscientist Alessandro Treves at SISSA. After receiving his PhD, Kang returned to Kim Il-sung University. The other two students changed to mathematics.

Mutual benefit

Treves championed the idea of the exchange agreement. He helped to broker it when he visited Pyongyang last September to attend a rare international conference at the university, entitled ‘Development of Science and People’s Welfare’, where he found himself one of only a few western scientists attending.

Treves says that the deal is valuable for science diplomacy, but also offers extra benefits for both parties. It gives young scientists from North Korea “opportunities to grow in a booming field of research”, he says. They represent talent that “selfishly, I would like to bring to SISSA before their country opens up and they are snatched by our competitors”.

In a speech reported by North Korea’s national press agency last April, leader Kim Jong-un said he wished to boost the economy through science and education. Science, he said, should “serve as groundwork for state building and an important index of national strength”.

Nature 568, 14-15 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00990-5

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