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North Korea opens its doors to UC scientist

North Korea opens its doors to UC scientist

A University of Canterbury scientist has become the first Western astronomer to visit the politically isolated state of North Korea in more than 60 years.

Professor John Hearnshaw (Physics and Astronomy) recently returned from a week-long visit to North Korea where he lectured at the Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and met with astronomers from the Pyongyang Astronomical Observatory and officials from the Academy of Sciences. He was also taken on 19 cultural visits to sites in and around Pyongyang, and visited two local schools.

Professor Hearnshaw said apart from a visit by a group of Chinese astronomers about 10 years ago, as far as he was aware he was the first astronomer, and one of the few scientists from another country to visit North Korea.

“It was an incredible, stimulating experience for me and one which I would love to repeat in the future. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” he said.

Professor Hearnshaw’s visit was organised by the Korea-New Zealand Friendship Society which operates inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Professor Hearnshaw has spent a decade working for the International Astronomical Union on promoting astronomy in developing countries.

“My impression is that they want to open the country up to the rest of the world but they don’t know how to do this, and they perceive the countries around them as being hostile,” he said.

“But their new leader was educated in Europe so he has experienced the West and may see a better way for his country that includes opening it up.”

The lectures Professor Hearnshaw delivered at the Kim Il Sung University were on topical aspects of modern astronomy and cosmology – measuring the age of objects in the universe, techniques for finding planets and nuclear astrophysics.

He also took a small library of 109 astronomical books with him as a gift to the students and scientists he met. The books were donated by friends and colleagues who attended the International Astronomical Union’s General Assembly in Beijing, which Professor Hearnshaw attended before travelling to North Korea.

He also visited two schools in Pyongyang, the Korea-New Zealand Friendship School and Kumsong College. The latter offers intensive education to gifted children.


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