How does North Korea Rate in Research Collaboration and Publishing of Results?

      In recent years, there have been several studies conducted on the state of North Korean collaborative research, mostly focused on bibliographic surveys. Noh, Kim, & Choi, in 2016, used the Web of Science (WoS) collection and social network analysis to analyze North Korean researchers’ networks before and after Kim Jong Eun and concluded that international collaborative research increased after he took control. Jeong and Huh (2018) used the WoS core collection to conduct a bibliometric analysis of North Korean research from 1978 to 2018. They found that North Korea collaborated with China over half (55%) of the time when doing collaborative research; that Kim Il Sung University produced the most articles; the main research fields were from the physical sciences; and funding mostly came from China.  Another bibliographic analysis was conducted by Kim and Chung (2019), which used data from SCOPUS to determine the current state of physics research in North Korea. They reported that physics was a growing field in North Korea, although still mostly conducted on a theoretical scale, and identified 16 representative physicists. Finally, Kim and Kim (2020) examined the international research conducted by North Koreans, again using the SCOPUS database, and concluded that North Korea relied on China for research collaboration; is focused on subject areas that have military applications; and is not making much of a contribution to academia. 

    The problem with these studies however, is that most of the papers compare North Korea’s current state of research with South Korean research, or even research conducted in the US. However, in many ways those countries are not suitable targets for comparison because they are developed countries. Therefore, there is a need to compare North Korea to a country that is at a similar level of development in order to determine if North Korea is truly lagging behind in academia. 

    The easiest way to determine if a country were at a similar level of development or not would be by using the UN’s Human-Development Index (HDI). Unfortunately, North Korea does not share enough information about itself with the UN to be properly categorized and as such is not included in the index. Therefore, population and GDP were looked at as another way to determine a properly comparable country to North Korea. According to the World Bank, North Korea had a population around 25.5 million in 2018, whereas Niger had around 22 million in the same year, with a GDP of 9,290.94 billion USD. North Korea’s GDP is not officially known, but Statistics Korea put their 2018 GDP at 29.6 trillion won (USD 26.4 billion). However, Trading Economics, with data supposedly from the World Bank, put North Korea’s 2017 GDP at 17.36 billion USD. Due to the uncertainty of the economic factors, other variables must be considered.

    While the countries are slightly different in population and possibly more than slightly different with regards to GDP, both countries face a language barrier in publishing research on an international stage (North Korea’s national language is Korean, and Niger’s is French), and receive a sizable amount of foreign aid. According to ForeignAssistance.Gov, the US government’s website for publishing US Foreign Aid information, Niger received 92.74 million USD in 2018. In contrast, according to Shim’s 2019 article, by May of 2019, North Korea had received only 15.7 million USD in humanitarian aid. As such, Niger was chosen as a suitable candidate for comparison with North Korea. However, at odds with the interest in North Korea research, there have been no bibliometric analysis of the research of Niger. In fact, in a bibliometric analysis of the impact of African science, Niger is never mentioned, except in the table ranking of the output of the African nations (Confraria & Godinho, 2015). Niger ranked 30th out of 53 countries.

    In order to compare the research of the two countries, the WoS collection was used to search for articles published by the two countries from 2015-2019. Table 1 shows the number of articles of both countries, separated into two categories: all articles with at least one researcher from the country and researchers from another country (all), and articles written without collaboration from other countries (only).


Table 1


    As shown in Table 1, while Niger researchers conducted only 9 % of their research without international collaboration, North Korea conducted 41% of their research by themselves. This is unsurprising, but notable. As Tartari and Breschi (2012), point out, access to resources, both financial and non-financial, is a strong motivation for researchers to collaborate. Both countries, due to their limited resources, should be collaborating. 

    Another interesting feature of Niger’s collaboration is how it is different than the collaboration of other African nations. Figure 1 shows with whom Niger collaborates. As was similarly reported in Confraria & Godinho’s research, Niger’s main collaborators are the USA and their former colonizer, France. What sets Niger apart from other African scientific powers is that they also collaborate significantly with other African nations. 


 Figure 1

    How should these findings be interpreted? First, proximity matters. Half of the top countries collaborating with Niger are located near it in West Africa. Therefore, it should not considered unusual that North Korea collaborates heavily with China, even overlooking their political similarities. Second, the comment Adams et. al (2013) makes in their paper on international collaboration clusters in Africa that Africa’s research links “are not driven by global phenomena but by local historical and cultural factors” (5) can and should also be applied to North Korea. 

    The other interesting finding was in the comparison of the research areas for each country. Both countries had similar percentages based on research types regardless of whether they conducted the research collaboratively or alone. (Figures 2 and 3 show North Korea’s research areas, collaborative and individually, respectively.) Niger’s research focused on Life Sciences and Biomedicine (69%), but North Korea was split fairly evenly between technology and physical sciences. (Note: the research areas are provided by WoS, but overlap is allowed. As such, these percentages are an estimate.) 


 ​​​​Figure 2

     This pattern can be interpreted one of two ways. The first is that the outside pressures or interests of collaborating partners continue to affect research even when it is non-collaborative. In other words, countries will continue to research in areas that they have collaborated in, either due to the resulting structure of knowledge developed from such collaboration, or in hopes of attracting other collaborations. The second interpretation assumes the opposite- countries tend to collaborate more in areas in which the country itself is more invested. Further research would be needed to determine which interpretation is more accurate.


 Figure 3


     What can we learn about North Korea through this analysis of their research trends? In the end, it is obvious that North Korea, when compared to a country of similar status, is not lagging behind in terms of research. Their research areas demonstrate a distinct slant, but so do Niger’s. In addition, while Niger is holding steady with regards to the amount of research they are producing, both collaborative and individual, North Korea has been increasing both for the past three years. Their individual output, specifically, increased to almost six times its former productivity, and North Korea actually produced more papers than Niger in 2019. 

    The main difference between the two countries is in their collaboration patterns. Why does North Korea not collaborate with more countries? Is it due to outside pressures or internal decisions? It is difficult to determine for certain without access to the country, but two factors that probably affect collaboration the most are the internal and external limits on the North Korean people’s movements, and the sanctions put on the country by the UN. The first comes from both North Korea’s state control and travel bans or limits put on North Koreans by the UN. The second, sanctions, specifically those put forth in Resolution 2321, limits scientific and technical cooperation, unless 

the Committee has determined on a case-by-case basis that a particular activity will not contribute to the DPRK’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or ballistic missile-related programmes; or […] the State engaging in scientific or technical cooperation determines that the particular activity will not contribute to the DPRK’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or ballistic missile-related programmes and notifies the Committee in advance of such determination. (p. 3)

     Finally, I would like to end with a word of caution. This survey of the WoS database for North Korean papers is not intended to be at the same level as the previous literature referenced in the beginning of this blog post. Rather, this post hopes to clarify a common misconception that appears in said literature- that North Korea is behind other nations in their research. While it is certainly true that both North Korea and Niger do not output research at the same rate as other, more developed nations, the fact that there is literature claiming one is lacking and the other is not shows a distinct bias that seems out of place in academia. 


***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


Adams, J., et al. (2013). International Collaboration Clusters in Africa. Scientometrics, 98(1), 547–556.

Confraria, H., & Godinho, M. M. (2015). The impact of african science: A bibliometric analysis. Scientometrics, 102(2), 1241-1268.


Kim, E. & Kim, E. (2020). A critical examination of international research conducted by North Korean authors: Increasing trends of collaborative research between China and North Korea. Scientometrics.


Kim, K. & Chung, Y. (2019). Bibliographic and content analysis of physics papers from North Korea indexed in the Scopus from 2005 to 2018. Sci Ed. 6(1), 35-40.


Niger Foreign Assistance. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2020, from

노경란, 김은정, 최현규 (2016). 국제학술논문을 통해 본 북한의 과학기술 지식생산에 관한 연구. 한국비블리아학회지, 27(4), 205-227. (Noh, Kim, & Choi. (2016). A Study on the Production of Science and Technology Knowledge in North Korea through International Academic Papers. Journal for the Korean Biblia Society for Library and Information Science, 27(4), 205-227)


Shim, E. (2019, May 22). Switzerland becomes No. 1 donor of foreign aid to North Korea. United Press International.


Statistics Korea. Accessed June 9, 2020.


Tartari, V., & Breschi, S. (2012). Set them free: Scientists' evaluations of the benefits and costs of university-industry research collaboration. Industrial and Corporate Change, 21(5), 1117-1147.

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