North Korean scientists published a record number of research papers in international journals last year. This was apparently due to state support for research in order to legitimize the regime of new leader Kim Jong-un as well as influence from long-time ally China.


The Korea Institute of Scientific Technology and Information found that 34 research papers in international journals last year involved North Korean scientists, the most in a single year since 1976, when North Korean scientists began participating in international research activities.


The previous record was in 2010, when there were 29. South Korean scientists published 41,770 research papers in international journals last year.


Most of the research papers focused on optical technology, including the production of transparent graphene used to manufacture flexible monitors, and laser optics. Math, agricultural science, electrical engineering, chemistry and physics were also popular subjects for North Korean research papers. But there were no papers by North Korean scientists on missiles or nuclear testing.


The surge apparently owes something to Chinese influence, with 21 out of the 34 papers co-written with Chinese scientists. Most of the funding was also provided by China.


Last year, China ranked second after the U.S. in terms of research papers in international journals. "China is North Korea's long-time ally and neighbor, so it makes sense for Chinese and North Korean scientists conduct joint research," said Choi Hyun-kyu at KISTI.


But North Korean scientists also published joint papers with scientists from Australia, Germany and Switzerland. None of the reports were written solely by North Korean scientists.


Experts say support from the regime also played a role. Kim Jong-son at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) said, "Although North Korea was unable to revive its economy, it put forth goals for science and technology to rebuild itself."


Although the number of papers involving North Korean scientists has increased, none were published in the three leading international journals -- Cell, Nature and Science. And their quotation frequencies were either in the single digits or zero.


However, scientists around the world say the North's researchers are not to be underestimated. For example, North Korean laser expert Kwon Yong-hyuk won the Best Student Paper Award from the International Society of Offshore and Polar Engineers in June. The ISOPE symposium is the top scholarly gathering in the field of marine technology.


Kwon developed a portable device to quickly analyze toxic pollution in the North Sea and beat 177 competitors to the honor.
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