North Korea sanctions should be eased, say Nobel laureates

Staff at a maternity hospital in Pyongyang Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Foreign visits to North Korea are tightly controlled

Sanctions imposed on North Korea are hampering health and science and should be eased, a group of three Nobel laureates have said.

They were speaking in Beijing after visiting Pyongyang in what was billed as an attempt to promote dialogue.

"You cannot turn penicillin into a nuclear bomb," one of them said.

International sanctions on North Korea were further tightened this year after it claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb and launched a missile into space.

The laureates' visit came as a rare party congress opened in North Korea, with leader Kim Jong-un hailing his country's "great success" in its nuclear advancements.

The event is widely seen as a chance for Mr Kim to cement his power, and South Korea urged the foreign delegation not to visit, fearing it would become a propaganda coup for the North.

"We didn't come to criticise them," said Aaron Ciechanover, who won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2004.

"We really came to converse and to exchange dialogue with students."

On sanctions, he said "you cannot turn penicillin into a nuclear bomb... You don't pressurise via making people sicker".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The delegation included three Nobel prize-winners and a prince from Liechtenstein

Foreign visits to North Korea are carefully monitored and public access to information such as the internet strictly limited.

The visit was organised by the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation (IPF) and also included Nobel laureate for economics Prof Finn Kydland, Prince Alfred of Liechtenstein and IPF chairman Uwe Morawetz.

Nobel laureate for medicine Sir Richard Roberts said he was "quite impressed" with what North Korean scientists had achieved despite sanctions.

"This embargo is really hurting the scientists and that's a great shame," he said.

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Media captionPrince Alfred of Liechtenstein of the International Peace Foundation defends its North Korea mission

During the visit, the laureates were taken to a hospital on what appeared to be a stage-managed event where a BBC team reported that there may have been no physicians present. Professors Ciechanover and Roberts returned to the hospital a few days later and described it as a fully functioning modern hospital.

The latest sanctions, approved by the UN in March, included export bans on materials used in nuclear and military production as well as restrictions on luxury goods and banking.

A resolution stressed the new sanctions were not intended to have "adverse humanitarian consequences" for civilians, many of whom face financial hardships and shortages of food.

Update 20 May 2016: This story has been amended to make clear that two of the laureates returned to the hospital after the BBC's visit.