Kim Jong Un wants to modernize his weapons. That is why the UN prohibits member states from conducting research with North Korea. It still happened in Berlin.

The surprising email from Pyongyang is only a few sentences long. Sender: Professor Im Song Jin, physicist and expert in laser optics. You have to know that anyone in North Korea who has an e-mail address and communicates with other countries is trusted by the regime.

Professor Im confirmed to DW that he was a guest researcher at the Max Born Institute in Berlin. Between 2008 and 2010. And after that? “We stayed in touch via this email address and continued to publish together.”

The last joint publication will appear in summer 2020 in a recognized specialist magazine. At this point, all UN member states have been asked to stop scientific exchanges with North Korea for almost four years.

The Security Council wants to prevent North Korea from tapping sensitive knowledge and putting it into the production of even more modern weapons of mass destruction.

Germany is one of the biggest supporters of the United Nations. So why does the renowned Max Born Institute for Nonlinear Optics and Short Pulse Spectroscopy (MBI) continue to work with North Korea?

The cooperation has lasted for several years, although the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic secret service, expressly warned in 2016 that despite all the sanctions, “continued North Korean procurement efforts for Western technology (are (are) to be observed, including in Germany.”

DW researched the case. In the end, an apparently avoidable German violation of UN sanctions is emerging. The case basically throws a spotlight on how freedom of research is handled in Germany.

Hardly a day goes by without headlines from North Korea: Never before has the East Asian country, where the population is starving, fired as many ballistic missiles as it did in 2022. Concerns have also been growing for weeks that another nuclear test could be imminent. There have already been six, the first in 2006 and the last so far in 2017.

There is a calculation behind it: The isolated country demonstrates strength through weapons technology. It is vital for the totalitarian regime to be able to keep up militarily. This requires research and technology.

Since 2006, the United Nations have passed a total of nine sanctions packages – with severe restrictions on technology transfer and academic exchange. As a result of the fifth nuclear test, the UN Security Council finally decided in November 2016 that all member states should suspend their scientific cooperation with North Korean researchers.

This resolution, recorded in Resolution 2321, applies across disciplines. It applies to theoretical basic research as well as applied research. There are only exceptions for the medical field or after a case-by-case assessment. This is intended to prevent the transfer of dual-use knowledge that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

“Possible military applicability of advanced research is difficult to prove and extremely easy to deny or hide,” a UN insider told DW. Due to the sensitive subject matter, he does not wish to be named.

The source describes the danger of such a transfer of knowledge to North Korea as “dangerously real”. And adds that the UN sanctions also include remote collaboration via email and co-authorship. “There is concern that such cooperation could serve to promote intangible technology transfer for North Korea’s weapons programs.”

The country’s rapid military development since the first nuclear test in 2006 is incomprehensible without technological progress. So it stands to reason that risky knowledge transfer must have taken place.

This is also confirmed by a study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in the USA. It examines North Korea’s international research collaborations from 1958 to 2018.

Result: The lone leader among almost 1150 studies examined is North Korea’s protecting power China with over 900 joint publications. It is followed, albeit at a great distance, by Germany with 139 publications.

If you only look at the last decade, one German name stands out – that of MBI researcher Dr. Joachim Herrmann. The makers of the US study see a dual-use risk in several research collaborations in which he was involved.

The Max Born Institute is a non-profit research institution that is financed in equal parts by the Federal Ministry of Research (BMBF) and by grants from the federal states. “The MBI does not conduct any military research, but only civilian basic research on and with lasers,” the MBI management wrote in response to DW’s request.

The now retired physicist Herrmann has been doing research there since it was founded in 1992. Deutsche Welle contacted him and spoke to him on the phone. He declined an interview.

At the end of 2008, Dr. Joachim Herrmann and the North Korean physicist Im Song Jin in Berlin. The guest scientist received a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service.

A few months later, a second North Korean comes to the MBI, Kim Kwang Hyon – he travels with a scholarship from the Daimler and Benz Foundation. Kim will stay until 2012 and do her PhD.

as dr Returning to North Korea in 2010, his personal connection to Herrmann does not break. Im left a good impression, he’s considered to be a smart guy. Communication is now via email.

A total of nine MBI publications by Herrmann with North Korean scientists will appear between 2017 and 2020. Im is involved in eight of them, and former doctoral student Kim in the ninth. New North Korean names appear as co-authors. Professor Im got his students on board.

All shared articles are publicly available. In all cases, it is basic research in the field of laser technology that is not aimed at a concrete practical goal. However, this does not rule out later – including military – further development.

Deutsche Welle has obtained an assessment of the latest publication from ten independent physicists and disarmament experts. Opinions differ among the six physicists: Half see the study as harmless, the other sees potential for future military application.

The four interviewed disarmament experts are unanimously alarmed – especially Katsuhisa Furukawa. From 2011 to 2016, the Japanese was a member of the UN panel of experts monitoring sanctions against North Korea.

His conclusion: the individual paper may be unproblematic, but the cooperation as a whole is not. “I am deeply concerned that she helped advance North Korea’s scientific understanding of what may ultimately have contributed to the weapons of mass destruction program.”

Furukawa believes that Joachim Herrmann’s collaboration with the North Korean researchers “very likely constitutes a violation by Germany of UN sanctions.”

The former UN employee suggests an investigation and adds: “At least I think that the German government and the Max Born Institute implemented the UN sanctions too poorly or maybe deliberately ignored the UN sanctions.”

In Germany, freedom of research is protected by the constitution. Researchers are free to choose their partners and projects; politicians do not intervene. But this freedom also includes responsibility.

In fact, researchers have a duty to identify possible dual-use risks themselves. If you have doubts as to whether your research can also be used militarily by partners, you must contact the responsible Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA). BAFA then checks whether joint research is allowed or not. But the impetus has to come from science itself.

If UN sanctions are also involved, as in the case of North Korea, things get really complicated, because sanctions only take effect if the UN members implement them in a legally binding manner at home. In the German case, this involves EU law and national law.

Basic research, such as that carried out by the Max Born Institute, is generally not subject to approval within the European Union. But the boundaries to applied research are often blurred. In the event of a sanction, this means that there is no automatic exemption from an inspection.

“The BAFA checks in each individual case whether a permit is required in the specific case and is happy to help with delimitation questions,” the Federal Office confirmed to DW when asked. The human rights situation in the partner country is also included in the assessment.

But the Max Born Institute did not contact BAFA. As a result, no case-by-case assessment was ever carried out.

In 2020, almost four years after the tightened UN sanctions, the last MBI publication by Dr. Herrmann with North Korean scientists. In its written statement to DW, the institute explained that scientific contacts were terminated “of its own accord”.

The reason “was growing concerns in the Board about North Korea’s role in international politics. MBI does not collaborate in its research with representatives of the regime in North Korea and would like to avoid even the appearance of collaboration.”

It remains unclear why this step was taken so late. From the point of view of the MBI, the main fault lies with the federal government. The UN decision to end all scientific cooperation “has not been implemented in Germany. At no time did we receive a request from the BMBF, for example, to suspend scientific contacts with North Korea.”

Kai Gehring, Green member of the Bundestag and chairman of the research committee, does not accept the argument. “There is a school and a university d. Anyone in the scientific community who has not noticed that there is a comprehensive sanctions regime against North Korea, I would have a few questions about how something like this can happen.”

Scientific exchange can be an important channel of dialogue with authoritarian regimes to promote liberal values ​​and the joint solution of global problems.

But with North Korea, the red line of science diplomacy has long since been crossed, emphasizes Kai Gehring. “North Korea is absolutely authoritarian and one of the greatest threats to international security.”

Im Song Jin and Kim Kwang Hyon, who once did research at MBI with Joachim Herrmann, are part of the totalitarian North Korean system – whether they like it or not.

Physicist Im now teaches at Kim Il Sung University, physicist Kim at the State Academy of Sciences. These two elite institutions are essential to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons program. The United Nations has already investigated both institutions for “multiple violations of UN sanctions,” confirms former UN official Furukawa.

Since returning to North Korea, physicist Im has also published two research papers with colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics (CAEP), most recently in the summer of 2022.

Basic research also takes place at the CAEP, but above all the academy is known as China’s nuclear weapons forge, here the focus is on the development and testing of nuclear weapons.

Physicist Kim, in turn, described the fourth North Korean nuclear test in January 2016 as a “milestone”. He told the state-run Pyongyang Times at the time, “I am determined to advance scientific research to accomplish the tasks set by the Supreme Leader (…) with the same thinking and working methods as defense scientists.”

The conclusion of this case is bitter: Despite all the UN sanctions, nobody in Germany questioned the cooperation of the Max Born Institute, even though the MBI as an institution enjoys state funding. There was insufficient communication between all those involved, and scientific self-control failed.

When such omissions are possible over an extended period of time, even in a glaring case like North Korea, it suggests that the system as a whole has weaknesses.

UN sanctions expert Furukawa demands: “There must be much closer cooperation between the scientific community and national security authorities.”

Berlin is still reluctant to set red lines. But that’s exactly what it’s all about: Where does freedom of research have to end when autocratic countries like North Korea, China or Russia can take advantage of them?

Because of the war of aggression against Ukraine, all German research cooperation with Russia is currently on hold. Scientific cooperation with China is hotly debated. Germany has not yet found its balance between liberal values ​​and state security interests in research.

Editorial assistance: Christian Caurla

Editor: Sandra Petersmann

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The original of this article “Despite sanctions: Germany researched with North Korea” comes from Deutsche Welle.