Sunday, September 8, 2013

File:Robert Kelly File Photo.JPG

A group of volcanologists from the UK and USA have traveled to North Korea to assist them with conducting scientific investigations and installing equipment near the volcano Mount Paektu.

Wikinews interviewed Dr. Robert Kelly of Pusan National University (PNU) in South Korea, who specialises in security and diplomacy and Dr. Jim Gill from the University of California who has visited the Chinese side of Mount Paektu.

((Wikinews)) Given that the UK, USA have strained political relations with North Korea, what is the purpose of these scientists working together?

Dr. Robert Kelly: Mt Paektu erupted massively about 1100 years ago and has been dormant since. Recently there has been seismic activity, and should it explode again, it could be gigantic — and devastating. It is everyone’s interest in East Asia to know about such a possibility, so this kind of cooperation can be above politics. But it is also always good to engage North Korea to try to draw them out. Such engagement can occur in nonpolitical, technical areas like this most easily.

((WN)) Does North Korea understand that it needs the specialism of British and American scientists to plan for when the volcano erupts?

RK: It does. North Korea does actually engage in various track II programming, including student and administrative exchanges. This is not well-known due to the nuclear issue however. The North Korean government is aware of its technological backwardness, and they often dangle concessions to other states in exchange for tech transfers like this.

((WN)) The North Korea underground nuclear test site is very close to the volcano, do you think this affected North–South Korean relations?

RK: Not very much. It does upset South Koreans somewhat, because Mt. Paektu is actually [a] national landmark. It is the mythological birthplace of the Korean people. And there is some scientific concern that major seismic activity could impact nuclear facilities.

((WN)) Do you think that the field work being carried out by the scientists, being near a militarised border is very difficult?

RK: No, because it is in the interest of all local parties — NK, Chinese, even Russian — that Mt. Paektu is properly monitored. Indeed, I could imagine that, behind the scenes, the Chinese pushed North Korea toward this cooperation, as this is somewhat unusual for NK.

((WN)) May the North Koreans be wary and suspicious of their British and American counterparts, given the secretiveness of the state?

RK: Absolutely. I have been to NK, and I can say positively that the scientists will be monitored and accompanied at all times they are away from their hotels. They will also be isolated from the NK wider population. They will only interact with specially chosen minders who speak excellent English and have proven their loyalty to the state. And there will be security personnel with them at all times outside their hotels too.

((WN)) Do you think that Western scientists collaborating together with the North Koreans could set as an example of political things to see in the future?

RK: Not really. I hope so, but North Korean[sic] has a tendency to pretend to open itself, and then to re-close after it gets what it wants. All sorts of interaction with North Korea gets hyped as ‘a new beginning’ or a ‘historic opening,’ only to come to naught. That does not mean it could not happen, just that I am skeptical. Instead, NK is likely to continue to interact when and where it has certain specific needs, as in this case. And that interaction will be tightly monitored. Fifteen years [ago], at the start of the Sunshine Policy by SK, there was hope that increased interaction would grow organically and slowly open up NK. That was the spirit behind the Kaesong industrial zone. But in fact, the North Koreans tightly controlled Kaesong to capture its gains and limit spillovers. I imagine the same will happen here.

((WN)) Do natural hazards pay attention to international political differences?

Dr. Jim Gill: Of course not.

((WN)) Is there a high risk and increased seismic activity in relation to Mount Paektu?

JG: Not currently. There was unrest at the volcano during 2002–05 but it has returned to normalcy.

((WN)) Would an eruption of Mount Paektu have consequences for multiple countries?

JG: Yes. The most likely widespread consequence will be an interuption of air traffic between North Asia and North America and Europe. More locally, the tourist industry on the Chinese side of the border will be very impacted. Most ash fall will be in the DPRK.
For perspective, there was an extremely large eruption of the volcano at about 940 AD — one of the largest historical eruptions anywhere on Earth. It is uncertain how often it has erupted since, and how large the eruptions were, but nothing has been big enough to cause serious problems scores of kilometers away. So yes there is risk — it is large mountain with a long history of eruptions — but nothing indicates a high level of concern now.