A handshake between North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (left) and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in (right) could open the way to scientific ties.

Korea Summit Press Pool/AP

Korean thaw raises hopes for scientific cooperation

South Korea’s scientists are welcoming the outcome of last week’s historic summit with North Korea, which has raised hopes for a permanent peace treaty between the longtime foes. The joint statement signed by North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in calls for “more active cooperation, exchanges, visits and contacts at all levels.” It does not mention science. But researchers are confident that the sentiments apply to research, too.

“Surely the agreement between Mr. Moon and Mr. Kim creates an opportunity to restart talks over cooperative research,” says Ryu In-Chang, a geologist at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, South Korea. Nascent collaborations have been cut short in the past. But given the dramatic shift from confrontation to diplomacy, including an upcoming summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, “I think the current situation is different,” says computer scientist Park Chan-Mo. Park, a former president of South Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology and a veteran of North-South scientific exchanges.

One area of potential cooperation is public health. At an 18 April forum sponsored by the Korea Federation of Science and Technology Societies in Seoul, Shin Hee Young, a Seoul National University Hospital pediatric oncologist, described an analysis of North Korean scientific publications indicating that the north is struggling to contain multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and parasitic diseases rarely seen in the south. The study “can be used to develop strategies for North-South Korea cooperation,” Shin and colleagues recently wrote in the Journal of Preventive Medicine & Public Health.

The rapprochement also brightens prospects for restarting stalled cooperative studies of Mount Paektu, an active volcano straddling the border between North Korea and China. Paektu unleashed a massive eruption 1000 years ago, and seismic rumblings beneath the mountain in the mid-2000s led North Korea to reach out to geologists in the south and elsewhere for help in analyzing the threat. After several false starts, a pair of researchers from the United Kingdom visited Paektu in 2011. But South Korean geologists were not invited on that trip.

Over the past year, scientists from South Korea and five other countries have been developing a proposal for installing a monitoring array in deep boreholes on Paektu to capture physical and chemical signals that might presage an eruption. So far, North Korean scientists have not taken part in the planning, says Lee Youn Soo, a geologist at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources in Daejeon, South Korea. But in late March, with the help of AAAS (which publishes Science), the group approached a Pyongyang-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works to arrange scientific exchanges with North Korea. Lee hopes joint research on Paektu will be a priority in negotiations to follow the recent summit.

There is one place where scientists would like closer ties to keep things just as they are: the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two adversaries. Off-limits since the armistice ending hostilities in the Korean War was signed in 1953, the DMZ has become a 250-kilometer-long, 4-kilometer-wide biodiversity hot spot. It hosts an estimated 3500 plant and animal species, including endangered red-crowned cranes and rare Asiatic black bears. “Both war and peace could make this accidental paradise a zone of total destruction or a zone of overdevelopment,” says Seung-ho Lee, a co-founder of the East Meadow, New York–based DMZ Forum, an NGO that hopes to turn at least part of the zone into a nature conservation area.

Hall Healy, an American conservationist who coordinates activities on the Korean peninsula for the International Crane Foundation, based in Baraboo, Wisconsin, says joint ecological studies in the DMZ could later be extended to other areas of the north. And optimists think North Korea is already showing signs of an interest in conservation: Last month the East Asian–Australasian Flyway Partnership—a network of governments and NGOs that works to preserve habitat for migratory birds—announced that North Korea will be its newest member.

With reporting by Ahn Mi-Young in Seoul.