North Korea’s only private university is hiring foreigners (never mind the detentions)

North Korea’s only private university is hiring foreigners (never mind the detentions)
Image: Screengrab from PUST video
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In 2011, author Suki Kim took a job teaching English at the newly-opened Pyongyang University for Science and Technology. She later wrote a book about her experience there. The university she taught at is also the institution Kim Hak-song, the US citizen detained by North Korea over the weekend, was affiliated with. He was helping to develop the university’s farm by advising on agricultural methods, according to a statement from the university. Last month North Korea also detained Kim Sang-duk, a US citizen who had been teaching finance at PUST, as he and his wife prepared to leave the country.

It’s hard to imagine a campus with a more toxic political environment than one that is located in North Korea, encourages foreigners to work there, and teaches the country’s elite. North Korea has other major universities, such as Kim Il-sung University, the country’s oldest and named after leader Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, but PUST is the only private one, and focuses on bringing in foreign faculty, whose interactions with students are closely monitored once they’re there.

The school, which currently has just over 1,100 students, faculty, and workers, describes its mission as “education, with an international outlook” and “bringing illumination to the Korean people and the world.”

A university spokesman said via email the school has procedures in place to ensure that faculty members are aware of the “very special conditions” of living and working in Pyongyang, including restrictions on materials that can be brought in, and guidance on inappropriate discussion topics. The university also said it couldn’t comment on the recent detentions, but added that they appeared to be related to investigations into matters “not connected in any way” to PUST’s work. For that reason, they should not cause concern to incoming faculty, the school said.

Christian roots

The university was founded by Korean-American James Kim, an evangelical Christian who survived imprisonment and a death sentence in North Korea. In her book, Suki Kim cites interviews in which James Kim says he raised $10 million from evangelical churches to build the university. The author, who began tracking plans to build the school around 2008, attended one fundraising event organized by a church in Evanston, Illinois. About 50 or so Korean-American or Korean students attended, “and for about an hour they prayed and cried,” she wrote.

On its website the university notes that “churches can support PUST through prayer” or “they also may apply to be one of our cornerstone churches to arrange donation drives.” According to its website, supporting the school does not violate the current sanctions against North Korea. A university spokesman said the school takes great care to abide by the sanctions regime, including minimizing funds to be spent within North Korea and taking care not to bring in any goods that may be covered by sanctions.

Some reports note the school is male-only, but a picture on the site from last year shows female students as does this video (the school said it only had male students at the time it first started operating in 2010 but that the proportion of women since has been increasing).

North Korea’s food situation is the educational priority

Reuters reported earlier this year that the school has asked Texas A&M University, which has a prominent agricultural program, for help in improving its teaching on food production, a serious concern for the food-starved country. In the spring semester, it began a lecture series focusing on fertilizers and herbicides. On a more personal level, the university seeks donations for its Rice Fund, for feeding its campus community, pegging the cost of rice three times a day at $10,000 per month. “By donating to the Rice Fund, you are facilitating the mealtime conversations that help develop deep, personal relationships between our faculty members and students,” it says. A funding progress page lists zero donations this year.

The university is keen to host foreign faculty

North Korea’s track record with detaining foreigners, particularly Americans, ought to be off-putting. The university notes that PUST has the largest community of foreigners in North Korea, with some 60 foreign faculty from China, the United States, Canada, and Europe. It’s not yet clear what impact the recent detentions will have on the university’s hiring—which depends on unpaid “volunteers” willing to “submit to authority.”

Vacancies presently listed on the site (and likely posted before the detentions, which aren’t noted on the school’s “recent news” or “in the press” pages) include English and Chinese instructors, as well as professors in biology, organic farming, soil science, and perhaps more worryingly, stem cell culture and genetic engineering. Last year the university opened a kindergarten for the children of foreign staff, it said, and is now planning to open an elementary school.

Britain’s Lord David Alton, a patron of the school according to the BBC, explained, “You have to start somewhere. This isn’t an excuse for appeasement, which I’m totally opposed to.” He added, “This is a form of engagement in order to try and change things.”

This story was updated with comment from Pyongyang University of Science and Technology on the day of publication.