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Birkbeck-North Korea volcano study offers positive lessons in science diplomacy

Researchers behind pioneering Earth sciences project share findings on best practice

Mount Paektu

Important lessons in scientific diplomacy have been shared by the Birkbeck Earth scientists behind the first research project of its kind to be produced jointly between a western nation and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

In August 2013, following a two-year negotiation period, a team of western Earth scientists led by Dr James Hammond of Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science were invited to record earthquakes and collect geological samples at Mount Paektu – a dramatic volcano situated more than 2500 metres above sea level on the border of DPRK and China.

The challenges and opportunities created during and after the research project – diplomatic and technological – have been outlined this week in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) journal, Science & Diplomacy.

The article charts the full arc of the volcanology study, which began in 2011 with an initial invitation from the DPRK government for the western Earth scientists, including Prof Clive Oppenheimer of the University of Cambridge, to run a four-day workshop addressing the eruption history of Mt.Paektu, and its current state.

In the years following, the western and North Korean scientists worked together to navigate numerous challenges facing research in this region; challenges which in large part exist due to strained political relations between DPRK and the international community.

During the two-year discussion with UK and US authorities, Dr Hammond and his team were able to draw on their experiences carrying out research in the diplomatically sensitive regions in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Between these projects and the DPRK study carried out in August 2013 the western scientists have extracted five guidelines in using diplomacy for science:

  1. Strong, clear science objectives
  2. Enthusiastic scientific partners
  3. Good, open communication
  4. Realistic objectives
  5. Flexibility

“These five factors allow for trust to be established between all partners,” Dr Hammond explains.

“It shows that scientific collaboration has the ability to overcome even the most obstructive political issues and offers hope for addressing not only issues like volcanic hazard, but also other, global scientific issues such as natural hazards and climate change.”

The findings of the Mt. Paektu study are due to be published later this year. The researchers are already planning more ambitious projects to allow them to understand Mt. Paektu in more detail and aim to extend their collaboration to other areas of Earth and environmental science.

The importance of studying volcanoes such as Mt Paektu is two-fold, Dr Hammond adds. Firstly Mt. Paektu is one of 193 volcanoes lying within the borders of countries under some form of international sanctions, meaning responding to future eruptions at these volcanoes could be more difficult due to strained relationships.

Secondly, as was revealed in a 2011 volcano risk study, there are many such volcanoes around the world where the impacts of an eruption could be significant, but for which little or no information is currently available.

Dr Hammond concludes: “As we become more developed and live in a global community, our vulnerability to volcanic hazard is increasing, thus volcanoes require our attention to allow us to minimize the impact of future eruptions.”

The full article, “Understanding volcanoes in isolated locations: Using diplomacy for science” can be read in full on the Science & Diplomacy website.

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