NORTH KOREAGermany Did Research with North Korea -- Despite UN Sanctions

By Esther Felden

Published 28 November 2022

Kim Jong Un wants to modernize his nuclear weapons. To stop him, the UN has banned research collaboration with North Korea. One Berlin institute continued to collaborate with North Korea on research projects — without flagging the risks.

The email is only a few sentences long, but it was sent from the most unlikely location: North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. The message came from Im Song Jin, a physicist and expert in laser optics, in response to a DW request. Im is one of a privileged few. To have an email address and be permitted to communicate with the outside world is a sign that he is trusted by the North Korean regime.

Im confirmed to DW that between 2008 and 2010 he was a visiting scientist at the Max Born Institute for Nonlinear Optics and Short Pulse Spectroscopy (MBI) in Berlin. And after that? “I have a business e-mail address in Kim Il Sung University,” Im wrote. “By using this e-mail address we communicated and continued collaboration works.”

His last joint publication with an MBI colleague appeared in an established specialist magazine in the summer of 2020. This was nearly four years after United Nation member states were called upon to cease all scientific exchange with North Korea. The UN Security Council wants to prevent North Korea from gaining access to sensitive knowledge and applying it to the production of even more advanced weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Domestic Intelligence Agency Warned in Vain
Germany is one of the United Nations’ biggest supporters. So why was the renowned MBI, which is publicly funded, still working with North Korea?

The cooperation continued, even though in 2016 the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence service, explicitly warned that despite the sanctions, “ongoing North Korean efforts to procure Western technology can be observed, including in Germany.”

A DW investigation of the case has revealed a potential German violation of UN sanctions that could have been avoided. The case throws a spotlight on the potential for conflict between Germany’s approach to freedom of research and security concerns.

A Series of Missile Tests
Hardly a day goes by without headlines featuring North Korea. Although most of the East Asian country’s population is impoverished, it has never fired as many ballistic missiles as it has in 2022. For weeks now, there has also been mounting concern that it might be about to test another nuclear bomb. It has already conducted six such tests: the first in 2006, the most recent in 2017.