Can a university bring change to North Korea?

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With international faculty members at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST)

In few countries is the urban-rural contrast as stark as in North Korea, where gleaming skyscrapers proliferate in Pyongyang while life in the countryside has not changed much since the 19th century. Leaving the North Korean capital towards the South on a rather badly paved road, the rare visitor is thus surprised to find a modern, heavily guarded 240-acre university campus just outside of the city.

The area is home to Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), one of the most inspiring and improbable success stories in an isolated and seemingly hopeless country. It all began in 1998 when Kim Chin Kyung, a South Korean-born US-American businessman and educator who had founded a university in China, traveled to Pyongyang to donate food after reading news reports about starvation and famine. Soon after his arrival, however, he was arrested. Languishing in prison, Kim, an evangelical Christian, wrote his will, and offered his organs for medical research in Pyongyang. After six weeks of questioning, Kim finally convinced North Korean authorities that he was not a spy.

Yet only two years later, the very North Korean official who had arrested Kim made an interesting offer: Could he build a technical university in Pyongyang, just like the one he had founded in China? Kim agreed and started to travel the world to raise funds for the university. Still at the height of Sunshine Policy, the government in Seoul gave $1 million to the school. Many individual groups, particularly Evangelical Christian movements from China and the United States, gave large amounts of money. Originally scheduled for launch in 2003, the project was delayed for several years, but finally $35 million were found and operations began in October 2010.

In order to allow donations from U.S. citizens, policy makers in Washington, D.C. needed to approve the project. The name of the biotechnology course, for example, had to be changed to “Agriculture and Life Sciences” for fear that it might be seen as useful in developing biological weapons. ‘MBA’ sounded too imperialistic to the North Koreans, so the name of the course was changed to “management”.

Today, PUST is North Korea’s first privately funded university. The 267 students, 200 of whom are undergraduates, are drawn from the country’s elite, many the sons of senior officials in the ruling party or military officers. All classes are taught in English. Faculty is predominantly from the United States and Europe (pictured above). Their lives are far from easy. While they can interact with the students, they are not allowed to leave campus on their own.

Yet during my visit, the faculty members seemed upbeat. Teaching at PUST, one argued, was a unique opportunity to put North Korea’s future elites in touch with the outside world. Teaching international economics, another says, will eventually turn the students into change agents. Their optimism and energy is admirable. Every year, they attempt to take further steps to provide the students with fresh ideas from abroad. Since last year, PUST students can spend a semester in Europe, studying either at Westminster University or at Uppsala University in Sweden. Faculty members are tirelessly traveling the world to convince other universities to engage with PUST.

After 2008, when a South Korean tourist was shot and killed by a North Korean soldier in the border region, and after 2010, when North Korea allegedly sank the South’s Cheonan warship, followed by its shelling of Yongpyong Island, international funding has dried up, making PUST’s survival ever more difficult. Such challenges, a faculty member asserts, have only strengthened their resolve to carry on. Institutions across the world, he laments, are still scared of signing agreements with PUST for fear of being seen as supportive of the North Korean regime. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. PUST serves as one of the few bridges that allow young North Koreans to obtain knowledge from abroad and gain a glimpse of life outside of North Korea’s borders. Many other institutions, perhaps even from the Global South, should reach out and support an institution that could one day bring much-awaited change to North Korea.

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