Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

Where is science produced? A typical Western answer would be: “in a university, of course.” Actually, it is not really the case these days, since an average teaching routine at most universities is increasingly incompatible with serious research, so a growing share of research is conducted in the corporateowned or independent research centers supported by industry, and by private and/or government money.

Somewhat surprisingly, the communist world was first in separating pure research from a teaching-oriented university. This was initially a Soviet approach, widely accepted by all communist countries, including North Korea.

Most Communist countries had a special academic body whose staff was responsible solely for conducting scientific research. This body was and is called an Academy of Science. In its original Soviet form it could be best described as a self-governing Ministry of Science and Humanities.

The Soviet Union inherited this institution from the old Russia of the tsars. Historically, in pre-Soviet times, the Academy used to be a prestigious closed club of prominent scholars and scientists.

The Communist government took on its payroll, but the institution retained a lot of its ingrained traditions and established privileges. The Soviet Academy of Science was governed by a council of full members, usually well-known scholars and/or academic administrators, who periodically voted new scientists into their circle. Government interference in the process could be serious, but elections still remained contested.

Full membership was a tenured position that could not be withdrawn, even if the bearer was engaged in acts the authorities did not like. Soviet authorities, incidentally, tolerated a high level of critical expression among academy members.

The academy ran a huge network of research centers that formed the backbone of the Soviet research community: the academy always had the best people and the best equipment.

North Korea acquired its own academy in 1952. The preparations began in spring, and on the 1st of December 1952, the academy was officially established. This date became its official foundation day and is regularly celebrated.

At the time of its foundation, the North Korean Academy of Science included 10 full and 15 candidate members and was responsible for 9 “research institutes” and 43 smaller “research laboratories.” Hong Myng-hi was elected as the first President of the Academy, but this aged man was hardly a good administrator. In all probability, Hong was chosen for his background and longstanding reputation as a leftist intellectual of high integrity. In 1956 he was replaced by Paek Nam-un, a prominent historian and another defector from the South (such defectors were very prominent in the North Korean intellectual circles of the 1950s). Unlike his predecessor, Paek was willing to become a real administrator.

Nowadays, the North Korean academy is a large institution. It runs 40 research institutes, about 200 smaller research centers of various kinds, a factory which produces research equipment and 6 publishing houses which issue books and about 40 periodicals. In 1982 the Academy became a ministry, unlike its Soviet counterpart which always had some trappings of an independent “scientists’ club.” But at the same time, the North Korean Academy never even gave a hint of the intellectual, let alone political, independence which was a hallmark of its Soviet counterpart in earlier times.

In the USSR, academies proliferated in the 1940s and 1950s when minor fields began to lobby the government for permission to acquire an academy of their own. Not least, they were attracted to the prestige associated with the name of an “Academy” (and, of course, leading authorities in their respective fields also wanted to be styled a “full member of such-and-such academy”). Thus, the Academy of Medical Science, the Academy of Agricultural Science and even the Academy of Pedagogical Science were born. Each had its own autonomous network of research centers.

A similar process was witnessed in the DPRK where there are minor academies as well. Following the Soviet example, North Korea established an Academy of Medical Science and an Academy of Agricultural Science. Nothing was heard about pedagogy, but the North did create two academies with no Soviet analogue: the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, responsible for military research; and the Academy of Social Science, responsible for the humanities. In 1992 the minor academies, with the exception of the second scademy, fused with the major Academy of Science, but in 1998 the old Soviet-style structure of one major and a number of minor academies was restored.

In better times, a much-coveted job with an academic research institute provided a North Korean scientist with some equivalent of an ivorytower life. Being a staff member of the academy meant good wages, good rations (in North Korea, the latter was more important than the former) and a lot of prestige. In some cases, especially in the natural sciences, the scientists could be even somewhat protected from ongoing political campaigns. However, over the last 15 years, the positions of the academy and its personnel have undergone a dramatic decline.


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