"Project Status Report: July 2004"

The KUT/SU Research Collaboration

Project Overview

Syracuse University (SU), with participation and counsel from The Korea Society (TKS), began discussions in late spring 2001 with Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) UN Mission representatives, which led in March 2002 to the establishment of bilateral research collaborations with Kim Chaek University of Technology (KUT), Pyongyang in the general area of integrated information technology. KUT is one of the two comprehensive universities in the DPRK and has engineering and technology as its focus.

The SU Project Director is Prof. Stuart J. Thorson, Director of Information Technology at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He leads a University team of researchers from SU colleges including the Maxwell School, the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, and the School of Information Studies as well as the Systems Assurance Institute, the English Language Institute, and the University Library. The KUT Project Director is Prof. Sin Thae Song, Director of the KUT Information (Computer) Center.

To date there have been six research exchanges, four by KUT researchers to SU (March and December 2002, April 2003, and March 2004) and two by SU researchers to KUT (June 2002 and June 2004). The length of these exchanges has ranged from one to five weeks. By mutual agreement KUT and SU have worked to maintain substantial consistency in the composition of their delegations over time and, as a consequence, each exchange has extended the results of previous ones.

The current research focus is on adapting open source software to produce a back-end library management system for the KUT digital library, which is scheduled to come on line in spring 2005. All of the software being developed is intended to conform to international standards for library meta-data. To support the ongoing development of the KUT library and to facilitate the sharing of digital library meta-data and content it is hoped that, subject to the regulations of the DPRK and the US, it will be possible to implement twin computer labs. These labs, one at SU and one at KUT, would be used to support collaborative work at a distance and would also provide a common research environment for visiting researchers.

The governance of the research collaboration is invested in a Joint Coordinating Group (JCG) composed of the project directors from KUT and SU, the Vice Chancellors of SU and KUT, the Executive Director of The Korea Society and a member of the DPRK's Flood Damage and Rehabilitation Committee. The JCG holds regular meetings in conjunction with the research exchanges and is responsible for setting the strategic direction of the relationship as well as identifying near-term project milestones. The JCG's role is described in a written agreement developed by the researchers and signed by the Vice Chancellors of SU and KUT.

Outcomes thus far include twin lab designs, software specifications, joint work on proving the correctness of computer programs, presentations in English of research results by KUT and SU participants, and an academic paper written jointly by representatives of KUT, SU, the DPRK Mission, and TKS which was presented at the ASPAC meetings at the East/West Center in June 2003.


It is expected that the KUT digital library will serve as a concrete example of robust IT-driven public infrastructure within the DPRK. As such, it can support internally directed efforts to strengthen the civilian sector within the DPRK. Moreover, as the DPRK increasingly inter-acts with the larger world, it will be critical that it have trusted and successful experience working with US agencies and organizations as it develops those engagements.

Of course, sustainable trust requires familiarity with both the person and the context within which that person must act. Since digital libraries depend upon adherence to international standards, their development encourages working out protocols for cooperation and thus provides a powerful domain in which to build long-term trust.

The six research exchanges have involved the same core group of KUT and SU participants. This willingness on the part of KUT to commit the time of these key human resources provides strong evidence of their eagerness to collaborate with US institutions.

Once the KUT/SU project became established and the researchers had met several times and begun to feel comfortable with one another, the relationship became very much characterized by reciprocity, with each group working constructively to identify what was and was not possible for the other. In this regard the KUT and SU teams, guided by the JCG, have been very careful to put commitments in writing. To date every one of these commitments has been scrupulously met. Here it matters not so much that commitments are written down, but rather the process of formalizing them has provided invaluable opportunities to clarify what had been unrecognized misunderstandings before they become a source of conflict.

Beyond the central focus of the research, the collaboration, as a valuable side-effect, has provided each set of participants a window on events in the two societies. This has proven to be especially helpful in providing culturally anchored interpretations of current issues.

Lessons Learned

This collaboration is now about three years old and it is possible to identify, albeit tentatively, some lessons learned to date.

Institutional commitment: The willingness of the leadership of KUT, SU, TKS and the DPRK Mission in New York to visibly commit both themselves and key resources of their organizations to the collaboration helped greatly to provide a 'safe' environment in which the scholarly work could move forward.

Face-to-face is critical: The early in-person discussions between SU, TKS, and DPRK Mission people provided a context in which priori-ties and constraints could be discussed in an increasingly open manner.

Trusted communications: Over time, moving as slowly as necessary enabled the two teams to increasingly trust the communications between them. This meant that it was possible to negotiate difficult is-sues with generally good humor (e.g., the JCG document) and to ask clarifying questions as issues arose rather than waiting until questions became problems.

Unanticipated benefits flow: All participants have been pleased to see how, in the context of trusted communications, unanticipated benefits flow to all parties. This distinguishes a reciprocal collaboration from a quid pro quo agreement.

Maintain focus: It has been tempting to let the collaboration spill over into other substantive do-mains. While yielding to such temptation might at some time prove worthwhile, to date experience strongly supports that keeping attention centered on the bilateral academic research relationship has enabled the collaboration to remain largely disentangled from, though not unaffected by, the political relations between the DPRK and the US.

Informal communications are very important: Often the unplanned discussions are as significant as the formal planned ones. Informal meals have provided a congenial and productive environment for such conversations.

Put it in writing: Even with the best of intentions and good will it is possible for misunderstandings to arise. Sometimes these misunderstandings take a long time to become manifest. Slogging through the development of jointly acceptable written documents is almost always helpful in this regard.

Recognize that travel is exhausting, especially in the winter: The SU team made the mistake of scheduling a very brief JCG meeting in Syracuse. This was an undue burden on the KUT dele-gates who had to spend a disproportionate amount of time traveling (including time in Beijing awaiting the issuance of visas).

Be in it for the long haul and be prepared for bumps: It soon be-came apparent to both the SU and the KUT researchers that if this relationship were going to work everyone had to be committed to the long haul. This is especially true with regard to the building of the twin labs. Of course, a long time view requires that it be absolutely clear that all parties are completely sincere about the purpose and objectives of the relationship.

Share information appropriately: The DPRK and the US have different philosophies and practices regarding the sharing of information. It has proven to be important to simultaneously respect those differences and, at the same time, be honest brokers of information.

Don't over commit: A sense of trust often flows from a history of reliable interactions. In this regard meeting deadlines, clearly identifying risk factors, and establishing clear project milestones have all helped keep the collaboration moving forward.

Consistency of participation matters: The collaboration has benefited greatly from the willingness of KUT and SU to permit the continuous participation of key people.

Importance of shared governance: In sustained collaborations questions of priorities, future directions, and resource development are bound to arise. It is therefore very useful to have a shared governance structure in place to systematically, legitimately, and proactively deal with those issues.

Of course these lessons or heuristics are individually less significant than is their overall effect. The goal is to generate and sustain an environment of trusted communication supportive of open and empathetic communications.

Project Support

Support for the KUT/SU research collaboration has been provided by The Korea Society, The Henry Luce Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and other private sources through The Korea Society and Syracuse University. For additional information about this project, contact Professor Stuart Thorson (thorson@syr.edu), Dr. Thomas Harblin, Vice President for Giving Programs (tharblin@syr.edu), or Mr. Frederick F. Carriere, Vice President & Executive Director of The Korea Society (fred.ny@koreasociety.org)