Written by Olga Krasnyak.

On May 14th 2017, North Korea launched its latest missile test. Regardless of speculation about the type of rocket engine or potential Iranian links, the test appears to be another step in what is now widely believed to be a rapidly improving ballistic missile program. As the United States seeks to sanction North Korea, it seems ludicrous to imagine that South Korea could seek to engage and cooperate with North Korea in areas of scientific importance. But history suggests that science led diplomacy can play a role in laying the foundations for peace and understanding.

Both Koreas already have significant experience in interacting with different countries in the area of science diplomacy.

An example that demonstrated the potential of the soft power of science diplomacy in reducing inter-state tensions between the US and the USSR was the Apollo-Soyuz Project (1975).  Adhering to the mutual goal of the peaceful exploration of outer space, the United States and the Soviet Union successfully negotiated a joint mission amidst the background of the Cold War. The Apollo-Soyuz Project saw historic cooperation between NASA and the Soviet Academy of Sciences and demonstrated an ability of the major powers to work together despite divergent political systems, differing technologies and the obvious language barriers. Each nation designed and built its own spacecraft, but the interface was single. Both ships parts docked successfully in outer space allowing the astronauts to meet, work, and celebrate the achievement together.  The Apollo-Soyuz Project served as a prototype for the International Space Station (ISS).

If the USSR and USA could successfully negotiate and achieve this mutual goal, why can’t South and North Korea? Science diplomacy is rewarding and beneficial in three ways. Firstly, science diplomacy is used to establish cooperation agreements at governmental or institutional levels to improve national capacity; second, science diplomacy provides an even distribution of science among counterparts; third the universality of the language of science might be promoted by science diplomacy.

Both Koreas already have significant experience in interacting with different countries in the area of science diplomacy: South Korea with Russia via space cooperation, North Korea with Great Britain in making observations of the volcano Mount Paektu.

The launching of the first South Korean astronaut to the ISS in 2008, and the first South Korean space vehicle Naroho in 2013 are the results of space cooperation with Russia. Russia was an unusual and unlikely partner given South Korea’s historically close ties to the United States and its alliance partners. There are inherent risks yet mutual trustworthiness in such projects. Ko San (고산), one of the two finalists in the Korean Astronaut Program, was dismissed one month before the flight due to being suspected  of violating the security protocol during his stay at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. Ko San’s backup fellow, Yi So-yeon (이소연), became the first Korean female astronaut instead.

The launching and navigating of South Korea’s first space vehicle, Naroho did not proceed with ease. The first two launches of Naroho failed and both partners blamed the other. KARI (Korea Aerospace Research Institute) blamed the Khrunichev Center of Russia for its unwillingness to share the necessary technologies for building and testing Korean rocket engines, yet keeping up with Russia’s regional monopoly in space exploration technologies. Nonetheless, despite the hurdles, both partners succeeded in achieving their goals, and after two years pause in science cooperation, Roscosmos and KARI have announced the memorandum on the activation of joint space programs.

The project on joint observations of the volcano Mount Paektu on the China–North Korea border has been hailed as a landmark achievement in science diplomacy for North Korea. Since 2013 in a collaboration organized by AAAS (American Association of Advanced Sciences), U.K. scientists, working with their North Korea’s colleagues, recorded seismic activity from within the volcano. The project was the first time a Western geophysical equipment was deployed on North Korean soil, and resulted in one of the few papers ever published in a Western journal with a North Korean lead author.

Both Koreas undoubtedly have great potential to cooperate in science diplomacy. Scientists together with diplomats directly or/and with the mediation of other partners should promote the importance of working on science projects, emphasizing their peaceful, scientific, and non-military approach. This is the chance for science diplomacy to build relationships between counterparts for the sake of the development of science, the peaceful exploration of outer space and more importantly the reduction of regional inter-Korean tensions.

Space cooperation between South and North Korea may appear to be a long, long way off. But with the Vietnam War at its height, nobody imagined the Soviet Union and the United States could cooperate in space. Science and the uncertainties and unknown frontiers of space open minds and hearts. If the Soviet Union and the United States could do it, why can’t South and North Korea?

Olga Krasnyak is a Lecturer of International Studies and World History at Underwood International College of Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea. She tweets at @OlgaKrasnyak. Image credit: CC by (Stephan)/Flickr.

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