It’s always a bit difficult to tell what’s going on in North Korea in terms of technology. In June, the Pyongyang Machinery and Technology Exchange displayed a brochure detailing a 3D printer that appeared to be a MakerBot at a trade show. Though not much information was available, it was the first time we had heard anything about 3D printing in North Korea, though the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology stated that they’ve been using a 3D printer for prototyping in their research and development centre.
Recent footage from Korean Central Television (KCTV) indicates that the country may be pursuing 3D printing on a broader level. A demonstration of a 3D printer was given to reporters, with the statement that it can print bone for dental and cosmetic surgery procedures. KCTV stated that the printer in the demonstration was assembling a human jaw and that doctors will be using the technology to improve the speed and precision of surgical procedures.
“With this new technology, we can mould various bone fragments through a detailed facial blueprint,” said Dr. Hwang Seong Hyeok from North Korea’s Department of Dentistry.
A lot of things are unclear – who manufactured the printer and how long North Korea has been developing this kind of technology. While KCTV showed two documents they stated were a “patent of certification” and a certification of assessment from the “intellectual products exhibition”, it’s not clear if anyone outside North Korea has seen the printer.
Considering that the 3D printing of human bone is still very much a work in progress, it would be huge news indeed if North Korea suddenly revealed the technology. Based on the footage from the printer, it looks as though it may be used for printing medical models rather than actual implants. North Korea’s health system is reportedly in rough shape currently – at least partially due to heavy sanctions – with reports of broken equipment, high costs and declining treatment standards.
Regulatory processes for medical 3D printing are no joke either – in any country. South Korea, a leader in technology and medicine, has achieved some incredible feats in medical 3D printing, but even they are still working on establishing standards and regulations for 3D printing in medicine.
“We are calibrating 3D printers for procedures of dental implant prosthesis and physicians are taking advantage of the current limits that 3D printers can take,” Park Hyun-wee told NK News at the 3D Convergence Technology Centre in Seoul. “3D printers also remain in the R&D paradigm of inspection and testing, a strict set of guidelines that would assure regulators of the variety of industries 3D printers could shape.”
The takeaway is that North Korea is definitely interested in 3D printing – but it’s frustratingly difficult to tell what kind of progress has actually been made. – Clare Scott