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Secret Meeting Builds Korean Science Ties

11 April 2006 (All day)
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Chan-Mo Park

Removing barriers.
Scientists from North and South Korea met last week in hopes of healing the breach between their two countries.

SEOUL--In secret, some 200 researchers from South and North Korea met in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang last week to discuss ways to jump-start scientific cooperation across the divided peninsula. The unprecedented gathering was "historic" in its scale and ambition, says attendee You-Hyun Moon, secretary general of the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies in Seoul.

The meeting--labeled the Korean Conference on Science and Technology--included some 150 scientists from the North and approximately 50 Korean scientists from the South, China, and the United States. Researchers zeroed in on a series of joint projects. One on software development aims to bridge the information technology gap between the two sides, says conference organizer Chan-Mo Park, president of Pohang University of Science and Technology. North Korean scientists expressed a strong interest in breeding crops better suited to conditions in the North. And South Korean scientists have proposed an ecological survey of the demilitarized zone between the nations, subject to approval by military officials from both sides.

Past experience suggests that many challenges lay ahead. From 1999 to 2005, South Korea's science ministry spent $4.4 million on inter-Korean science projects--with little to show for the investment. Some projects have been delayed by export controls that limit high-tech transfers to the North. Others have languished for lack of communication. Several researchers have pointed to a common disappointment: After a connection is established, North Korean middlemen often have demanded cash up front before discussing substance. But things may be changing. Park says there was "hardly any money talk" in planning the meeting with his North Korean counterparts.

The conference is "a meaningful starting point," says Moon, who notes that both sides will have to labor hard to get projects off the ground. A working-group meeting is planned for June in Shenyang, China, and if all goes well, a follow-up conference--"hopefully bigger than the one in Pyongyang," Park says--will be held in 2007. The South Korean government also intends to hold bilateral talks with the North later this year, with the aim of launching an "Inter-Korean Science Center" in Pyongyang.

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