Here Be Dragons

The Weird Science of North Korea

By Martin Robbins


Pyongyang's national flower exhibition, displaying the Kimilsungia and the Kimjongilia, the DPRK's national flowers. Photo by Maxime Delvaux

No matter whose finger is in charge of pushing the big red button, nuclear bombs are scary things. But put them in the hands of leaders who appear to believe in unicorns and you get the same kind of unease you’d feel while watching a toddler play with a loaded gun on fire. So how does the world’s least rational regime cope with science, the world’s most rational discipline?

The answer, for the most part, has been a sort of relentless pragmatism. North Korea leaves research for research's sake to the decadent West, and regards dollars, industrial output, or better weapons as the most important outcome of any scientific program. In some cases this approach has been quite lucrative, with advances in drug manufacturing opening up new streams of income to match the dollars earned from exporting giant patriotic statues to sub-Saharan Africa. In possibly the first example of a country taking its economic policy directly from Breaking Bad, the Koreans have built meth labs and are exporting product into China and perhaps even the West via its network of diplomats. Drugs are now so easily available, and real medicines so hard to obtain, that locals are using them medicinally—heroin is now a common treatment for colds in some parts of the country. 

North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, sounds like the world leader you'd want fielding the "science and nature" questions in Trivial Pursuit, at least on paper. As well as holding a degree in physics, the planet’s youngest head of state is renowned across almost the whole of North Korea as an expert in the social sciences.


A student in the Kim Il Sung University computer lab.

His accomplishments in the field are so great that, last August, a symposium took place in Pyongyang dedicated to the “ideas and theories clarified by the dear respected Kim Jong Un in his recent works.” These works include landmark publications of papers such as, “The Great Comrade Kim Il Sung Is the Eternal Leader of Our Party and People,” the lavishly titled, “Let Us Brilliantly Accomplish the Revolutionary Cause of Juche, Holding the Great Comrade Kim Jong Il in High Esteem as the Eternal General Secretary of Our Party,” and, of course, “Let’s Dynamically Struggle for Final Victory, Holding Aloft the Banner of Songun”—regarded by many as a sort of The Selfish Gene of politics (though you can't imagine any of them do particularly well in SEO terms).

According to the Korean Central News Agency, papers were presented at the symposium that proved "the greatness of the ideas and theories of Kim Jong-un," and doctors and professors lined up entirely of their own free will to praise the dictator. Dr. Yon Jong Sul, for example, “noted that Kim Jong Un in his works elucidated Kimilsungism-Kimjongilism as the only guiding idea of the Workers' Party of Korea and the Korean revolution,” while Dr. Hong Thae Yon “recalled that Kim Jong Un scientifically formulated the idea that when the single-minded unity, the invincible military muscle and the industrial revolution in the new century are added up, they make a thriving socialist nation.”

It's compelling stuff. Overall, it sounds like everyone involved had a great time thrusting their entirely objective case studies in the general direction of the Supreme Leader.          

Given Kim Jong Un’s many glorious achievements, you’re probably wondering why North Korea’s top scientists haven’t created, from scratch, a special new flower for him yet, like they did for his dad and his granddad. Only recently, a national scientific symposium was held to discuss vital new research on the flowers Kimilisungia and Kimjongilia, two immortal breeds of Begonia produced by North Korea’s leading science wizards in honor of the young man’s predecessors. So far, though, a Kimjongunia specimen remains conspicuously elusive.


Kimjongilia festivals are held every year in North Korea. They don't look very exciting.

As well as presenting research on the flowers’ ecology and cultivation, “speakers at the symposium cited facts to prove that Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia, the flowers of the sun, are world-famous flowers as they are in full bloom reflecting all the people's high praises and ardent reverence for the peerlessly great men.”

Curious to find out more about these world-famous flowers, I got in touch with Rajveer Sihota at Kew Gardens, which hosts the world’s largest collection of living plants outside of North Korea. He consulted with some of Kew’s top specialists and returned with some shocking news: “We do not have any examples of these flowers at Kew.” Not only that, but “my contact in the tropical nursery doesn’t think they have ever been bred outside of North Korea.” Clearly, Britain’s horticulturalists have a lot to learn.

North Korean science isn’t all fun and games, though. Thanks to the nation’s  policy of self-reliance (known as juche), there’s a strong sense of pragmatism, with a focus on the military, industry, and agriculture. “They are putting a lot of work into agriculture science, entirely out of necessity,” said one North Korea expert I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous. “Sanctions have hit food supply hard. The first attempt to launch a satellite last April cost them 250,000 tons of US food aid, and apart from what comes over the border from China, the Koreans must be entirely self-reliant.”

Meanwhile, KCNA reports from yet more scientific symposiums—you wonder how the country’s scientists get any actual work done—reveal radical new research being undertaken in fields such as welding technology, the construction of modern trolley buses, and efforts to modernize the Pyongyang pig farm. They even seem to take climate change seriously, which puts them a few decades ahead of the Republicans or the Eurosceptic wing of the UK's Conservative Party.


Kids at a North Korean kindergarten playing on a nuclear-warhead merry-go-round. Photo by Alex Hoban

And while news that North Korea’s archaeologists had discovered a unicorn lair was widely mocked in the West, this may have been unfair. “I’m of the firm opinion that the story was mistranslated, accidentally missing out the vital word mythical,” said the expert I spoke to. “The whole story was meant to confirm a vital piece of folklore that showed Pyongyang is Korea’s ancient capital, but it was badly worded. Papers were only too happy to hold it up as an example of ‘those loony North Koreans.’”

Perhaps some of the greatest North Korean advances have been in health. While we in the West struggle ignorantly with nicotine patches and those electronic cigarettes that make you look like you're deriving some kind of satisfaction from sucking on a mini-Maglite, residents of Pyongyang can buy a "quit smoking" pill. Made with “rare medicinal herbs growing in steep mountains and deep valleys”, the remedy “removes nicotine accumulated in the human body”, thus leading the human to “give up smoking spontaneously.” If only our governments would ignore the protestations of Big Tobacco and import these foolproof pills for use in the West.

There’s an intense practical focus to North Korean science that would satisfy even the most rabid conservative demands. While Western scientists piss about looking for new things for Professor Brian Cox to point at on shows about the formation of the universe, the Einsteins and Newtons of North Korea march on at their own pace, creating new flowers, devising heroin cold treatments, and investigating nuclear bombs.

Creativity and the open exchange of ideas are unwelcome in this world: if you can’t praise the leader, feed a worker, build a factory, or blow up an American with your proposed invention, then you can fuck off back to the drawing board. This is the kind of progress that can be made with a micromanaged, target-driven approach to science. Which, it turns out, is not a lot of progress at all.

Martin Robbins is a writer and talker who blogs about weird and wonderful things for the Guardian and New Statesman. Here Be Dragons is a new column that explores denial, conflict, and mystery at the wild fringes of science and human understanding. Find him on Twitter @mjrobbins, or email tips and feedback to martin@mjrobbins.net.

More North Korea:

The VICE Guide to North Korea

North Korean Labor Camps

Hoping No One Dies at the North Korean Fun Fair!

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