How British Scientists Got Inside North Korea to Study a Volcano
Among North Korea’s problems, none are as potentially catastrophic as the one that sits on its border with China. We speak, of course, of nature—of a volcano responsible for one of the most violent eruptions in the past 5,000 years. Mount Paektu, as it’s known in Korean (Changbaishan in Chinese) is still an active volcano, and an enigmatic one. Western scientists can’t get in to study it, and North Korean scientists who can study it can’t talk to anyone else—until an unprecedented collaboration came along.
For weeks at a time since 2011, British and American researchers have gone to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is formally known, to collect rock samples and deploy seismometers—some even in the homes of North Korean villagers. And North Korean scientists have traveled to England, seismometer data in hand, to work on the collaboration’s first paper, published today. “This paper coming out is a milestone for us,” says Kayla Iacovino, now a volcanologist at the United States Geological Survey and a coauthor. “It is a real boon for using science as a tool of diplomacy.”
Iacovino was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge when she traveled to North Korea in 2013. And Mount Paektu was little known even among volcanologists. “The reaction I would get at first was, ‘There’s a volcano there?” she says. The groundwork for the collaboration had been laid, thanks for a long chain of events that started with the North Korean government reaching out to a China-based NGO. That group reached out to Richard Stone, a Science editor then based in Beijing, who then got in touch with Clive Oppenheimer, Iacovino’s advisor at Cambridge. (The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science as well as the journal Science Advances, where this recent paper appears, also helped secure funds for the project.)
Oppenheimer roped in James Hammond, a seismologist at the University of London, and the two got to devising a research plan. While the Chinese had deployed seismometers on their side of the volcano, nobody had mapped the underground magma chambers on the Korean side. So that was goal number one, and this first paper is indeed a snapshot of the volcano’s magma plumbing system. Goal number two was to study exactly what happened during Mount Paektu’s big eruption in 946 AD, which supposedly rained down ash even in Japan. Rocks at the actual site would be hard evidence of exactly how powerful the eruption was.
They ran into problems right away—thanks to sanctions that bring in technology the North Koreans could turn into military equipment. Hammond originally wanted to bring a device that measures fluctuations in the magnetic field to find pockets of magma. But it can also be used to detect submarines. They ended up redesigning the experiment without the equipment. Still, the whole process of getting licenses to bring even allowed seismometers took two years. “I’d say that was the biggest challenge,” says Hammond.
Songs, Booze, and Geekery
Once in North Korea, getting on the volcano was easy. Mount Paektu is a sacred site in Korean history, and it’s a popular destination in the summer. “A lot of DPRK students march up the volcano singing songs waving flags,” says Hammond. Last year, Kim Jung-un posed triumphantly atop the mountain after supposedly climbing it in honor of his father.
The team got to work with a dozen or so North Korean scientists, who have been watching the mountain for a long time, though with often outdated equipment. The scientists spoke English, but translators—some would call them “minders”—translated everything, which made for some awkward pauses when it came to technical terms. (“Joint RF/surface wave inversions”, anyone?) As well-versed the scientists were in the fundamentals of seismology, says Oppenheimer, they have been cut off from the rest of the scientific community for decades and it showed. When the British researchers visited, they’d handed off a USB drive full of the latest volcano papers.
But this is serious science—a contrast to how North Korean science usually gets played for laughs on the Internet. Perhaps you remember the unicorn lair or the hangover cure or the photoshopped hovercrafts. “Folks in the US have a caricatured image of North Korea—but of course they have a caricatured image of us, too,” says Stuart Thorson, a political scientist at Syracuse University involved in science diplomacy efforts with North Korea. From the perspective of diplomacy, these collaborations are all about letting scientists interact human to human. “The first step to solving problems is to humanize the people you’re dealing with,” he says.
And that’s happening. Hammond has now been in North Korea eight times, and he’s celebrated several birthdays there. “We had big party, singing lots of songs and drinking,” he said from Beijing, where he’s planning yet another meeting in Pyongyang.
The collaboration is a bright spot for Linda Staheli, who spent years at the nonprofit CRDF Global working on science diplomacy efforts with North Korea. She’s brought American scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Peter Agre to Pyongyang, and North Korean delegations to Georgia, New York, and Italy. Lately, that work has gotten harder because of shifting political winds. “Right now the relations I’ve been involved with are on hold,” she says. “We’ve had a very positive experience in the past, and we would like to build on it.”
Hammond and Oppenheimer are indeed planning to build on their collaboration, perhaps pulling in researchers from other disciplines to study, for example, the ecology of Mount Paektu. “We’ve always had our eye on building a durable platform for collaborative researcher in the DPRK,” says Oppenheimer. They’re also planning to publish more coauthored papers
It helps that scientists get along because they like to geek out about the same things. When the three North Korean scientists and their translator came to England to work on the paper, Oppenheimer remembers thinking they seemed slightly underwhelmed—until he took them to visit Newton’s statue and Darwin’s room at Cambridge. “‘Newton was here? Darwin was at Cambridge?’” he recalls them saying. “They got very excited.” Scientists will be scientists.
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