As North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un threatened to nuke South Korea and the United States three months ago, a small group of American professors remained at their lecterns at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).
The little-known university in the North Korean capital city was opened four years ago and its first classes started in 2010. About 400 undergraduates and 110 graduate students — all products of North Korean schools — study in English at PUST.
The school taught on even as the U.S. sent nuclear-capable bombers and missile-firing warships to the region in response to Kim’s warlike declarations.
The chancellor of the university, Chan-Mo Park — whose home is in Bethesda, Md., when he is not in Pyongyang — recalled with some humor that as the airwaves crackled with tension small children played in the parks of the North Korean capital.
And the students showed up for classes.
Chancellor Park said in an interview in Washington as he prepared to return to North Korea in August that the new university was funded by Christian missionary groups and approved by the North Korean government as a “model for globalization.” Initially the main funding came from So Mang Church, which is attended over the border in Seoul by the former South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.
The school teaches electrical and computer engineering; international finance and management; and agriculture and life science.
There are no South Korean citizens among the 60 professors teaching at the university. Thirty-nine of the teachers are U.S. citizens and the rest come from countries around the world. Twenty-six of them are — like Park — ethnic Koreans who settled abroad.
The rest of the teachers are from Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Finland and others.
In a sign of success, last year three PUST students went to study at the University of Westminster in London. They did well and will return home in September. Now Westminster picked five more students for the coming academic year; and others will go to Cambridge University under a Chevron scholarship; and four are going to study at Uppsala, Sweden.
Chancellor Park says that for himself and the other teachers in Pyongyang they feel more free. This is contrary to the view in the West that President Kim has ushered in a new hard line with his threats against the West, missile firings, nuclear weapons tests and cutting off commercial partnership with South Korea at the Kaeysong industrial park on the North-South border.
“There has been a big change after Kim Jong-un came into office,” says Park. “In the old days it was not possible to contact the locals. Now the locals approach us to take photos.”
Before Kim Jong-un he had to leave his cell phone at the airport when he landed and was forbidden from taking photos in the subway. He could not exchange North Korean currency by himself and could not shop at certain local stores.
“Now we can change our sim card at the airport and use our cell phones,” he said with a smile. “We even take videos in the subway. We can exchange local currency and can shop in local stores. The economy seems improved — people dress more vividly.”
He can now receive CNN and Chinese news channels.
But Park acknowledges the people he meets do not talk about any problems and will not talk about anything political.
And for the teachers to leave Pyongyang — which is an island of elites and shows very little evident poverty — the university teachers have to go with a minder.
He has, however, seen evidence of hunger. He saw a group from the countryside visiting the capital — they appeared lean, emaciated and had black skin from malnutrition, he said.
He also saw people some years ago harvesting acorns, which can be used to feed pigs or are eaten by humans.
Park, who is a U.S. citizen, said that the U.S. government would not mind him to take his job in Pyongyang: “When I have time, I brief the State Department. And the North Koreans like that I do that. They think I say good things about North Korea.”
During the March and April period of global tension, Park’s students switched from square dancing to martial arts — but “they were not so serious” and soon returned to dancing.
TV announcers called on South Korea to rise up against its government and be ready for immediate war, but outside, children were roller skating and happy to see foreigners.
The North said diplomats should be ready to leave because their safety could not be guaranteed. But Park called the Swedish embassy, which represents the U.S. government in Pyongyang, and was told there was no immediate threat.
The university is one of three places in the capital that holds Christian religious services on Sunday, but “the students don’t go,” Park said.
He says the government approves of the American and other Western professors teaching at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology so that the students can learn to work with foreigners and eventually “globalize” the country so it can compete in world markets. PUST students read the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. “Our students are the only ones in North Korea allowed to have direct access to the Internet — others have to go through a local intranet. So far we have no problems.”
He noted that the former co-president of PUST was recently appointed to be head of higher education in North Korea, “a sign they are pleased with the experiment.”
• Ben Barber was a senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency from 2003 to 2010. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.