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Inside North Korea

Science and Technology in N. Korea


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A three-member team from North Korea’s Kim Chaek University of Technology came in eighth at the International Collegiate Programming Contest that was held in Portugal in April. Hosted by the U.S. Association for Computing Machinery, the annual event pits students from the world’s top universities against each other in solving complicated programming problems. 

This year, students of 3,200 universities from 110 countries participated in the contest. Among them, 135 teams from 47 countries reached the finals. From South Korea, Seoul National University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology ranked 7th and 21st, respectively. The North Korean team’s eighth-place finish shows that North Korean science students stand shoulder to shoulder with their counterparts from renowned universities around the world. We can’t help but wonder how far North Korea’s scientific technology has progressed.

Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s science and technology with Professor Chung Eun-chan at the Institute for Unification Education. 

Students from Kim Chaek University of Technology won a silver medal at this year’s International Collegiate Programming Contest. That’s an impressive result, indeed. Teams that finish fifth through eighth at the competition are awarded silver medals. 

Among prestigious universities in North Korea, including Kim Il-sung University and Koryo Songgungwan(고려 성균관) University, Kim Chaek University of Technology is by far the best school in science and engineering. The university has about 10-thousand students and 2,000 faculties. Initially, it was part of Kim Il-sung University before it was founded as Pyongyang College of Technology in September 1948. 

In 1951, Pyongyang College of Technology was renamed Kim Chaek University of Technology, after the nation’s first industry minister. The university was the first place that leader Kim Jong-un visited after his failed summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in February. North Korea has stressed the importance of “self-reliance” amid the stalled nuclear negotiations with the U.S., and Kim’s visit to the school reflected his determination to focus more on science and education.

North Korea has taken part in various international science events. It participated in the International Mathematical Olympiad for the first time in 1990 and took fourth place in 2015—it’s best ever result

North Korea holds a nationwide mathematics contest to discover math prodigies to be sent to the International Mathematical Olympiad. When I was in high school in North Korea, I joined the national math contest. I managed to advance to the finals but failed to make it to the list of winners. North Korea is eager to find math prodigies early and train them vigorously

Ms. Chung worked as a teacher in North Korea before she escaped the country in the early 2000s. North Korea has long been enthusiastic about fostering talented students and sending them to international events. Starting with the creation of the Pyongyang Institute of Foreign Languages in 1958, North Korea established schools for art, music and physical education in the 1960s. Since the late 1990s, education for gifted students has expanded into science and technology including computers. 

Their abilities have been measured at international events and students from top schools such as Kim Il-sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology have won international programming contests 30 times since 2013. So, why does North Korea put so much effort into science and technology? 

Under the current regime, North Korea’s most important goal is to achieve economic development based on scientific advancement. For that purpose, the nation concentrates its resources on fostering science prodigies and treats scientists well. A 53-story building was set up on Mirae(미래) Scientists Street in Pyongyang in 2015 to provide homes for scientists, and a 70-floor skyscraper was built on Ryomyong street in 2017 to accommodate professors of Kim Il-sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology

In 2013, the early period of Kim Jong-un’s rule, the leader unveiled his nation’s key goal of building a knowledge economy and turning all citizens into scientific and technological talents. Apparently, Kim had a firm belief that science and technology would help improve the lives of the people. 

North Korea has invested heavily in information technology or IT, bio technology, energy and light industries. It has also created science-themed streets as well as residential and research complexes near major universities in Pyongyang. In 2015, North Korea opened the Pyongyang Sci-Tech Complex with a floor space of over 100-thousand square meters. The modern center has an electronic library and various facilities. Science facilities like these have recently been expanded into local areas, including the northeastern city of Hamheung. North Korea’s policy of prioritizing science and technology has actually achieved remarkable results. 

North Korea’s highly advanced science and technology enables the nation to collect sensitive military information and intelligence about other countries, including South Korea. The nation is also cultivating hackers and brilliant tech workers in nuclear physics, rocket development and biochemical weapons, which are posing a great threat to the international community. 

Some may doubt that the impoverished North can make such a huge investment in science and technology. But North Korea’s scientific technology certainly stands out in some fields. It rigorously trains and uses smart students in such areas as IT, artificial intelligence and nano technology. Kim Il-sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology took first and second place, respectively, at an international coding competition a few years ago. Also at a renowned international academic event in 2018, North Korea ranked first in the category of protein structure and life science, beating their rivals which were armed with high-tech equipment from advanced countries. 

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have to do with its science-priority policies and special treatment of scientists. North Korean hackers dispatched overseas conduct cyber attacks on financial institutions in various parts of the world to obtain information and earn hard currency. 

North Korea boasts a high level of basic scientific research. An increasing number of North Korean students studying in China, Mongolia and Europe are choosing to major in biology and chemistry. The North’s highly developed IT is also worth mentioning. Kim Chaek University of Technology has developed software capable of reading documents written in different languages, and it can identify letters from scanned documents with a reported recognition rate of 99.7 percent. 

But North Korea’s scientific advancement is like a double-edged sword. If it is exploited solely for military purposes, the country will continue to come under international criticism. However, if Pyongyang pursues reform and openness, starting with denuclearization, the nation’s existing policies of developing scientific technology and cultivating scientific elites can serve as a new foundation for inter-Korean cooperation. 

South and North Korea can work together for disaster prevention and humanitarian programs, regardless of international sanctions against the North. For example, the two Koreas could carry out a joint study on a possible volcanic eruption of Mt. Baekdu in the North and discuss how to deal with natural disasters like typhoons and floods. The South and the North could also cooperate on web-based distance learning, which is gaining popularity in North Korea these days. And I imagine inter-Korean exchanges in the field of life science will generate a great synergy effect. 

At present, North Korea’s upmost goal is to become an economic powerhouse through science and technology. But to this end, their denuclearization must come first. 

The North is good at putting things into practical use, while South Korea is known for its innovation and technological prowess. When permanent peace is settled on the Korean Peninsula as a result of North Korea’s denuclearization, cross-border cooperation will expand into almost all scientific areas and enable the two Koreas to prosper together.

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