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    Newsmaker Interview: Kim Heung-Kwang and Park Chan-Mo:

    Will Korea’s Computer-Savvy Crown Prince Embrace Reform?

    SEOUL—It’s a rare day that North Korea watchers successfully predict momentous changes in the hermit kingdom. But last week, the heir apparent to top leader Kim Jong Il emerged from the shadows—and as anticipated, it is his third son, Kim Jong Un.

    Intelligence sources and organizations with informants in the North have been sharing what they have learned about the mysterious young Kim, who is thought to be 27 years old. According to internal North Korean propaganda, informants claim, Kim oversees a cyberwarfare unit that launched a sophisticated denial-of-service attack on South Korean and U.S. government Web sites in July 2009. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service blamed the North, which has not commented publicly on the attack. Kim Jong Un’s involvement cannot be confirmed, says computer scientist Kim Heung-Kwang, founder of North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity, a group of university-educated defectors that raises awareness of conditions in the North and first revealed North Korea’s botched currency reform late last year. But it’s plausible: Kim claims that Kim Jong Un was tutored privately by a “brilliant” graduate of Université Paris X who chaired the computer science department at Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang before disappearing from public view in the early 1980s.


    Figure 1

    Reaching out. Kim Heung-Kwang (left) and Park Chan-Mo advocate engaging North Korea.

     

     

    Analysts can only speculate whether Kim Jong Un’s presumed familiarity with cyberspace and his exposure to the outside world—he attended private school in Switzerland—will influence North Korean policy anytime soon, if at all. Science diplomacy buffs have their antennae up for signals on how last week’s developments might influence international collaborations, including a new tuberculosis laboratory () and Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) ().

    For insights into how things may shake out for North Korea’s scientific community, 사이언스spoke with Kim Heung-Kwang and Park Chan-Mo. Kim Heung-Kwang, 50, is one of five Ph.D.-trained defectors known to reside in South Korea. (Defectors number 20,000 or more; only a few dozen hold master’s or higher degrees.) He grew up in Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city, and studied at Kim Chaek University of Technology before working as a professor at Hamhung Computer College and Hamhung Communist College. Embarking on what he calls “a big adventure,” Kim Heung-Kwang crossed the Tumen River into China in September 2003. “I wanted to work with computers in a free environment,” he says. A year later, he paid a broker to smuggle his wife and daughter to the South. His organization is now raising funds to launch a think tank, the North Korea Development Institute, in 2011.

    A specialist on computer graphics and simulation, Park Chan-Mo, 75, last week stepped down as the first president of the National Research Foundation of Korea to devote his time to PUST, which he is helping establish. Foreign faculty members will begin teaching PUST’s inaugural class—100 undergraduates and 60 grad students—later this month. In a remarkable gesture for a nation that permits few of its citizens e-mail or Web access, North Korea has promised PUST a campuswide Internet connection; this is not yet operational.

    Q: Kim Jong Un will need army backing to consolidate his power, so he presumably will maintain North Korea’s Songun [Military First] policy. But will his experience abroad have made him a more open-minded person?

    K.H.-K.: Anyone who comes to power will put pressure on his own people at first. The leaders think their people should starve a little bit to make them calm. But Kim Jong Un is a young person with a background in information technology, so he may desire to transform North Korea from a labor-intense economy to a knowledge economy like South Korea is doing. From the outside, there may not appear to be much of a difference, but inside the government this Generation X’er may start to make positive changes.

    Q: Some South Koreans worry that the North will use PUST to acquire knowledge for its weapons programs. Is it a risky venture?

    K.H.-K.: If North Korea keeps its promises [to permit academic freedom and Internet access], it will be a success.

    P.C.-M.: Our purpose is the globalization of North Korea through PUST. In that way, their economy can gradually develop, which will make it easier for reunification later.

    Q: Is it an auspicious time for the West to reach out to North Korea’s scientific community?

    K.H.-K.: It’s very important to do this, especially with the severe tensions right now between North and South. If Western scientists sincerely try to engage North Korea, there will be a positive response. North Korea has solid expertise in computer algorithms and software development. Collaborations in these areas can be win-win for both sides.

    Q: How do you reassure the North Korean government that scientific cooperation isn’t intended to undermine the regime?

    P.C.-M.: We never say anything bad. But we have to tell them there are certain things that need to change. For example, one day at an institute in Pyongyang we heard a siren. We thought there was a fire. Our hosts said don’t worry, it just means the electricity will be shut off in half an hour. They badly needed a stable electricity supply for their research, so we suggested that they install UPS [uninterruptible power supply] equipment.

    Our first aim is to build trust, to show that we are not brainwashing them. Wouldn’t it be great if someday [smiling] a collaboration with North Koreans will publish a paper in 사이언스?