There are regular stories in the news about the difficult relationship between the US and North Korea. Much that happens in that country is, to us at least, nearly completely secret. The military sabre-rattling is in the news, but one wonders if various forms of softer diplomacy, to reduce international tensions, may also be taking place, if more silently.
So you can imagine our reaction to seeing a photo of the Dennis Rodman trip to North Korea that is all over today's news (story here). We noticed the people in the Rodman entourage:
Rodman is in the foreground, as the star attraction. But close behind, in what may seem on the surface like an entourage of flunkies or thugs to help the star, is the unmistakeable likeness of one of our long-term collaborators--not in basketball, but in science!!
This is Joe Terwilliger (the guy just behind, in the large shades and blue jacket). Now, Joe is a musician by primary training (tuba) and may be expected to be in groupie-like scenes (he is, in other ways, as for example impersonating Abe Lincoln on his--Lincoln's--birthday on the streets of Manhattan every February). Nor, to our knowledge, is he a thug.
No, Joe has two potentially relevant skills (that we know of). He is exceptionally skilled at language, with serious-level abilities in Finnish, Chinese (Mandarin, we think), and, yes, Korean (northern and southern). So perhaps though he's dressed like a body guard, his smirk suggests that he's on some other mission.
And we think we know what it could be. We think he could be on a surreptitious mission to bring genetics to the benighted North. In fact, he's practiced and studied the North Korean dialect, and he's visited and even taught genetics there before. But all that was without the splash of a Rodman visit. So maybe the idea is that if the North Koreans are taught genetics they will be more willing to join the western frenzy and get into the GWAS game.
Why do this on the QT? Maybe because if we knew they were jumping into the genomics Big Data game they could quickly assemble the world's largest data base--by force marching all their citizens to a sequencing center, for example. That might take business away from us, the Europeans, and even the Chinese!
Should we worry? Well, maybe, because mass starvation should be a form of strong natural selection that could reveal vulnerable and protective genotypes. What an international scoop! Why, even Science and Nature and other popular magazines like them would lust (competitively) for the story. We can see their cover story, typically cute: "Food for thought".
But things could be more ominous. The North Koreans could know that NIH will lustfully dump milllions or billions into such a project to be the first to jump into this (as they would say) unprecedented opportunity for paradigm-shifting science and personalized genomic medicine.
But wait a second. Perhaps Joe's innocent intentions could lead to some dire consequences. The North Koreans would of course buy many Next Generation sequencing machines and all sorts of other gear that they can't make themselves. But would they release the data? Or, worse, would they take the opportunity to clone the machines and then undercut the US genomics-technology industry?
Joe T is no fool, but is he a dupe? Only time will tell.
The mystery in all of this is deepened by the fact that we've never seen him in person wearing a tie. We'll leave the interpretation of that to you, our readers.