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23 September 2004

Links Forged by Science: Research Delegation from North Korea Visits Heidelberg

15 delegates from North Korea came to Heidelberg for a seminar on applied mathematics and physics — Gradual thaw in communist North Korea — Science as an opportunity to break out of the country's isolation

In international terms, the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" is largely isolated. But two years ago the country took a few initial steps towards opening up its frontiers to the Western world. Recently a more resolute step in the same direction was essayed by a North Korean delegation taking part in a seminar in Heidelberg to discuss "applied mathematics and physics" with German scientists.

The precedent was the visit of an eight-man delegation of German scientists to the North Korean capital Pyongyang last November. This was the beginning of a series of scientific seminars discussing application-oriented topics in applied maths and physics over the coming years. The very fact that such an exchange has become possible between North Korea and Germany is the harbinger of a forthcoming thaw.

The seminars are the result of an initiative by the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation. For years now, the Foundation with its headquarters in Ladenburg near Heidelberg has been promoting international cooperation in the sciences with national programmes and grants for doctoral students. One of the core geographic centres for these activities is Southeast Asia. Funding for the seminars is provided jointly by the German Research Council (DFG) and the Foundation. "The scientists involved see these seminars as a step towards dismantling the country's international isolation," says Professor Gisbert Freiherr zu Putlitz, chairman of the Foundation's executive committee. "My experiences with the Soviet Union in the 1970s suggest that science as a uniting factor between the nations can create an atmosphere of trust between national elites much more quickly than politics or business."

It remains to be seen how fruitful this commitment will turn out to be in the case of North Korea. But Dr. Jörg Klein, executive secretary of the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation, believes that a degree of optimism is indicated: "The Foundation systematically seeks contact with scientists from internationally isolated countries in Southeast Asia and attempts to put them in touch with scientists from Germany. Recently North Korea has tentatively begun opening its doors." Dr. Klein sees this as an opportunity not to be missed. "Discussion so far has established a firm basis for more extensive contacts with the country's scientists."

Professor Albrecht Winnacker, co-organiser of the first seminar last autumn, is also confident of ultimate success. He works at the Institute of Material Sciences of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and is enthusiastic about the results that have already materialised: "At the first meeting last year in Pyongyang we established contacts leading to longer-term projects and visits to Germany by North Korean scientists. The fact that this second meeting has come about proves the success of our endeavours."

It is no coincidence that Heidelberg should be the venue for the second meeting. Heidelberg is a name to conjure with on the Korean peninsula. "In our very first meetings, our colleagues from North Korea showed a lively interest in coming to Heidelberg," says Professor Jürgen Warnatz, director at Heidelberg University's Centre of Interdisciplinary Scientific Computing, which organised the present encounter. "They are particularly interested in the work of our Institute and the Heidelberg physics departments."

But Heidelberg has no intention of "cornering" the Asian guests for itself, as is shown by the subsequent programme the organisers devised for the delegation. "Of course we were happy to invite them over," says Jürgen Warnatz, "and we were equally happy to ensure that above and beyond the seminar itself they could spend two weeks getting an impression of other universities in the region." The fact that cultural aspects also play a major role is not merely a question of hospitality. The programme included visits to the Residence in Schwetzingen and Heidelberg's Old Town and a boat trip on the Neckar — rather different aspects from those foregrounded at the first meeting in Pyongyang, when the German delegation visited the mausoleum in which Kim II, the founder of North Korea, is laid out in state.

The encounter was kept entirely free of any kind of political or ideological discussion. Naturally, all the 15 North Korean guests, two of them women, display communist badges of honour. But the surprisingly relaxed discussions never violated the unspoken limits it is essential to respect in dealings with emissaries from North Korea. With the door slightly ajar, it would be foolish to do anything that might cause it to be slammed shut again.

There are already agreements on a regular exchange of students between the two countries. On the German side, interest is understandably non-existent as yet, whereas young Korean scientists are keen to profit from the career opportunities opened up by a sojourn in Germany. This may have something to do with North Korea's earlier contacts with the GDR, reflected in the smattering of German occasionally encountered there. Though the seminars are conducted solely in English, it seems fair to assume that the preference for Germany may have its roots in earlier contacts with the GDR.

Another incentive for sojourns in Germany is of course connected with working conditions, which are much worse in North Korea than they are here. As Jürgen Warnatz knows from his last visit to North Korea, the departments there have to make do without computers of anything like the same standard, relying on smaller, less modern equipment bought in Singapore for 500 dollars or so. All in all, North Korean research is about 15 years behind but the scientists there are doing their best to catch up with the latest developments. An excellent way of doing so is of course a seminar of the kind organised for them in Heidelberg and due for a re-run in North Korea next autumn. If this leads to personal contacts alongside scientific exchange, then this can only be in everyone's interests. If North Korea's international isolation can be mitigated even to a small extent, then this would be further proof that science can also forge social links between the nations.
Heiko P. Wacker

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Warnatz
Centre of Interdisciplinary Scientific Computing
University of Heidelberg
Im Neuenheimer Feld 368
D-69120 Heidelberg
phone: 06221/548248

Thomas Schmitt
Press Officer of the Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz Foundation
phone: 06203/109213 or 0179/1229656
fax: 06203/10925

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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