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Germany: Berlin institute cooperated with North Korea on laser technologies


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Where do the limits of science run out? Is it possible for the Berlin-based Max Born Institute to collaborate with a university in Pyongyang?

North Korea held an unprecedented barrage of ballistic missile tests in 2022 and there are fears of preparations for a seventh nuclear test. Dictator Kim Jong Un wants more weapons of mass destruction, and his military’s capabilities are rapidly improving.

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But such improvements were not possible without progress in science and technology and for this reason the UN Security Council has imposed relevant sanctions. In November 2016, following the regime’s fifth nuclear test, the UN asked its member states to cease all scientific cooperation with North Korea, except in rare cases with special permission.

However, the Berlin-based Max Born Institute, which specializes in laser research, he reportedly ignored the fears that North Korea could acquire a dangerous know-how. So he continued to collaborate, primarily with a group of researchers based at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. In fact, it continued cooperation, not only after the tightening of sanctions in 2016, but also after North Korea’s sixth and last nuclear test in 2017.

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Germany’s violation of UN sanctions?

The researcher Dr. Joachim Herrmann published nine joint papers with North Korean scientists between 2017 and 2020. Special scientist and UN collaborator Katsuhisa Furukawa, speaking to Deutsche Welle, said this collaboration “is very likely to constitutes Germany’s violation of UN sanctions.”

All nine papers deal with basic research in laser technology, and military experts agree that future wars will be fought with laser technology.

Dr. Joachim Herrmann collaborated with North Korean physicist Im Song-yin, who had briefly worked at MBI as a visiting scholar.

Deutsche Welle discussed their latest joint work with ten independent experts. Opinions differ. Half saw no danger, while the others did not rule out military use.

Dr. Joachim Hermann refused to give an interview. The MBI directorate in a written statement to Deutsche Welle notes that it “does not conduct any military research, but exclusively laser-based civilian research.” He also pointed out that he ignores the strictest UN sanctions and added that “we never received a request from the Ministry of Education and Research to suspend scientific contacts with North Korea”.

The red lines in science

DW spoke to the Green Party’s Kai Goering, who heads the parliament’s Education and Research Committee.

“There are obligations on both sides,” he said. “And for those in the scientific community who haven’t realized that there are sanctions against North Korea, I would really have some questions about how that could be happening.”

However, the freedom of science is protected by the German Constitution, and as long as the government does not draw red lines, the responsibility for risk assessment is transferred to the scientists. The researcher in Berlin saw no danger and neither did his superiors they learned too late about the partnership. The last joint work of the Berlin-based MBI institute with North Korean researchers was published in 2020. Then the cooperation also stopped. As for the reasons, in response to DW he emphasized that “the reason was the growing concern about North Korea’s role in international politics. MBI does not cooperate with representatives of the regime in North Korea.”

DW – Esther Felden, Sandra Petersman/ Maria Rigoutsou

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