According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the atom-shaped complex “has been built as an energy-conserving, green architecture whose lighting and cooling-and-heating system are based on solar, geothermal and other natural energies.” It contains a comprehensive assortment of both physical and digital literature, topics varying throughout the fields of science and technology. The entire facility is equipped with up-to-date devices and materials, including a large-scale model of a satellite-carrying rocket installed in the central hall.
To try to understand what this all meant for the future of n.Korea, Serious Wonder decided to speak with Michael Bassett. Bassett is a decorated Army Veteran who holds a MA in Public Diplomacy from the American University in Washington DC and a graduate certificate in North Korean Affairs from Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, South Korea. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Q: Hello Mike. It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you again. So before we discuss about n.Korea’s recent reforms and scientific pursuits, can you introduce yourself to our readers? Who are you and why is your profession important in relation to n.Korea’s period of reformation?
A: Thanks for having me back, B.J. I’m always happy to talk to your readers. As a public diplomacy and conflict resolution professional, I view science exchange projects as a way of reducing ideological barriers, building bridges, and creating peace and stability. Your readers already recognize the importance and necessity of this, so they’re the perfect audience to engage on how this works in America’s “arch-enemy,” the DPRK.
Q: What kind of reforms is n.Korea pursuing and why the sudden focus on science and technology?
A: North Korea has been proliferating the information and technology industry with great persistence for the past several years. Kim Jong-un is as passionate about science, technology, and information proliferation as his father was about the arts and cinema. In the 2012 Mass Games, North Korea watchers observed with great astonishment new banners being paraded before the entire nation that specifically called for ideological reforms, placing much greater emphasis on the importance of science and technology. To achieve this, they proliferated an information industry for foreign ideas that taught them the sciences, the scientific method, and critical thinking skills. Their motivation for this progressive reform measure is rooted not only in the distant past, but in recent history as well.
“Science has rapidly developed over the course of the past decade in such a way that we can rely on it for nearly everything in our lives and to prevent nearly any catastrophe society could encounter. North Korea totally gets this, and therefore has opened their doors to it.”– Mike Bassett
In the distant past, Mount Baekdu erupted, and it was known as the most explosive volcano eruption in history. Several years ago this concern resulted in cooperation with the international community, allowing teams to monitor the volcano, but they’ve been unable to get necessary equipment in due to sanctions. So their data is still insufficient. Secondly, the Great Famine of the 90’s taught them the necessity of science in maintaining their natural environment. Since then, they’ve had numerous
These reforms will not only help the country care better for its land and people, in a more stable and sufficient way, but it will also be psychologically and socially liberating. For these reasons and many more related to market reforms and expanded freedoms, I have argued vigorously that Kim Jong-un is a reformer, and it is my hope that people can dump the political rhetoric long enough to recognize that fact and lend them more leeway, understanding, and support.
Q: What does this mean for the future of n.Korea and should the rest of the world abandon their hostility towards the country, doing everything they can to pursue a more peaceful and productive relationship with them instead?
A: Serious Wonder readers know even better than I do that the most serious threat to global stability is not nuclear weapons, but the health of the planet we inhabit. They also know that science has rapidly developed over the course of the past decade in such a way that we can rely on it for nearly everything in our lives and to prevent nearly any catastrophe society could encounter. North Korea totally gets this, and therefore has opened their doors to it.
In terms of international relations and public diplomacy, science has created a space, or a common ground, where we can work together. And this isn’t just happening inside North Korea. North Korea has sent numerous delegations abroad to study the techniques used by many countries, including the United States. A Few years ago North Korea sent a delegation to the U.S. to study agriculture. They visited farms all across the country and took those lessons back home with them. Thy can now care for their people better. It is sad that they are so internationally demonized for the state of their system, because that demonization is an isolating factor which can cause spaces like this to collapse and result in gross national suffering amongst average North Koreans.
In short, the international community should ease up on them in light of their very obvious desire to reform. And when it comes to peace and science, these concepts are synonymous to the North Koreans. In fact, friends in Pyongyang have recently told me of some secret meetings currently taking place where Nobel Peace Prize winners and scientists have gathered together for a peace and science conference. I see no reason why policy-makers would not be fighting tooth and nail to continue such a momentum. Anecdotally, evidence of trust building between D.P.R. Koreans and foreigners is abundantly clear when I talk to them. More and more are willing to talk and open up to foreigners. That was unheard of in the past.
A: For my very small role in this, I recently proposed some projects to the North Korean government. I cannot go into great detail, because the Memorandum of Understanding has not been finalized, but part of the project hopes to set up a self-sustaining fishery, and possibly even some inter-Korean fishing zones along the NLL (Northern Limit Line) or even inside the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). I have been very busy putting this ridiculously political, yet so simply meaningful, project together.
Science is a common ground that should not be affected by politics, and in that ground dialogue and exchanges can occur whereby ideological barriers are broken down and tensions reduced. My true hope is that the United States, the DPRK, and the Republic of Korea can learn to make amends with the past and learn to empathize with each other to the point that the emotional outpouring we saw during family reunions becomes a lasting and permanent thing via a formal end to the Korean War and Korean Unification.
Q: Do you have any final advice that you’d like to give to Serious Wonder’s readers?
A: (laughs) Actually, I would appreciate advice from your readers – the true technocrats of science. What other ideas have your readers got that could help me achieve my goals? Science and technology are universal and beneficial for the world, so any and all ideas are welcome.
I would simply ask that your readers keep an open mind about North Korea and recognize that this is not the North Korea of the 90’s; it is a North Korea in reform, yet also an independent nation of great pride. They will not ask for handouts, but they are grateful for sincere and genuine cooperation with anyone who recognizes the changes taking place, and wants to also play a role in them.
Photo Credit: KCNA/Reuters