N. Korea Enlists American Vulcanologist For Help With Active Volcano

American volcanologist Kayla Iacovino trekked last year to Mount Paektu, an active volcano in North Korea. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with Iacovino about her work in the secretive country.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A reconciliation of a different sort is going on in North Korea. The country contains a massive volcano, Mount Paektu, and lately it's been showing signs of increasing activity. Few foreigners have ever gotten close to it. But last August, after years of negotiations, a team of international scientists was allowed into the country. Vulcanologist Kayla Iacovino was part of the group that trekked to the crater to set up seismic equipment and to collect rock samples.

She joined us from BBC studios in Cambridge where she's just completed her Ph.D. thesis, and we asked what drew her to this particular volcano that's so difficult to get to.

KAYLA IACOVINO: It's actually on the border between China and North Korea. In fact, the border between those two countries cuts right through the center of the crater. Because of where it's located, it's so poorly studied that even most vulcanologists don't know it even exists, but it actually produced one of the largest eruptions in human history.

SIMON: Does the isolation of North Korea from much of the rest of the world mitigate against scientists studying it?

IACOVINO: Oh, precisely. I think that's probably the number one reason why there hasn't been more studies there. There was one study done, I think it was published in 2000 where one of the scientists was able to go into North Korea and actually take samples there. But other than that there haven't been any studies on the North Korean side of the volcano.

SIMON: Are there any fears that it's due to erupt?

IACOVINO: Well, it's so hard to say, but one of the goals of our project is to try to understand both the past behavior and the current state of the volcano and maybe have some hope of trying to answer that question.

SIMON: I gather you set up a series of seismographs.

IACOVINO: We did. Yeah, that was probably the main goal of this past trip.

SIMON: But I've got to ask, do seismographs work in a country that doesn't have access to the Internet and other communications technologies?

IACOVINO: Every few months the data will be downloaded on a hard drive and sent by mail to my colleagues in the UK.

SIMON: And they'll be able to alert people in North Korea if it comes to that?

IACOVINO: If it did, although as you might imagine, there's sort of a chain of communication that has to happen before information gets across; it's not as easy as picking up the phone or sending an email.

SIMON: I'll bet when the United Nations report came out this week detailing what they said were a couple generations of human rights crimes committed by the North Korean regime against the North Korean people, you must have read that with particular interest.

IACOVINO: Well I have, ever since becoming involved in this project, of course, been following news about the country more than I had in the past, but I don't know any more about that side of things than I think most people.

SIMON: But what did you see?

IACOVINO: In the city we saw the inside of a hotel or the inside of a bus. When we were out in the field though we were given fantastic access to see the sites that we needed to.

SIMON: You had a translator. Did you have the kind of people from the government that we sometimes call minders?

IACOVINO: We did, yeah. So everything had to follow protocol, going through this minder/translator person for absolutely every bit of communication.

SIMON: There are occasional calls which have gotten quite intense in recent months for academics to boycott certain countries where they think its policies go over the line. Do you sit and think about whether or not you should be going off to North Korea?

IACOVINO: Well, of course it's not something I take lightly, but what they lack is communication with the international scientific community and the international community at large, and the fact that we can bring a piece of that to them - and in fact, we're not planning on bringing some of the scientists from North Korea to the UK to work here in Cambridge and in London alongside our scientists and show them more of the techniques we use and give them access to the kind of information and data that they need to be on par with the rest of the scientific world.

So I believe that what we're doing is just good for the people there.

SIMON: Would you like to go back?

IACOVINO: I would love to go back. I think there's so much more for me to see and learn from the people and just about the amazing volcano that's there. But it remains to be seen if I'll be able to. I guess it depends whether or not they'll let me back.

SIMON: Kayla Iacovino who studies the origins of volcanic rocks joining us from the studios of the BBC in Cambridge. Thanks so much for being with us.

IACOVINO: Thanks so much for having me on.

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