This week, the year-old school hosted its first international conference for “the advancement of science education and international cooperation,” with dozens of foreign speakers, including a Nobel laureate from the United States.
“We are building a bridge between the Western world and North Korea,” said Chan-Mo Park, the school’s chancellor, who is a former University of Maryland computer science professor.
The unprecedented academic venture has amassed support from evangelicals eager to share Christian love, if not doctrine, in a place where religious proselytizing is forbidden. For the North Korean government, the $35 million campus is an opportunity to give favored students a taste of international education — without allowing them to leave.
Skeptics say that a little scientific knowledge can be a dangerous thing in a rogue state with nuclear ambitions and a penchant for cyberattacks. Some warn that the hefty financial investment will only prop up a repressive dictatorship while 23 million people live in poverty.
“You are dealing with a regime that is out to take advantage of you,” said Hank Song, a Washington-based human rights activist. The university, he said, “is only open and available to the elite of the elite.”
But prominent U.S. science organizations are watching the school closely, interested in forging research partnerships — for peaceful “civilian” science that might offer solutions to medical problems or food shortages and build a modicum of trust.
History shows that such collaboration can flourish even when political relations are frozen. During the Cold War, U.S. and Soviet scientists teamed up on space missions and to address the threat of nuclear weapons.
Peter Agre, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, led a team of U.S. scientists and funders into North Korea in 2009 and returned this week as keynote speaker at the conference. During his first visit, chaperones led the Americans on a tour of research institutes and universities and discussed possible collaborations. At the farewell dinner, Agre left his hosts with a gift: the navy blue necktie he wore for his Nobel speech in Stockholm.
“I wanted to welcome North Korea into the global community of science,” he said.
Like their neighbors to the south, analysts say, North Koreans are deeply dedicated to education and highly literate. But most North Korean colleges are marked by antiquated facilities and a patronage system that favors party loyalty.
The story of how a communist country with almost no public Internet access came to host a private university with courses in business administration and computer science traces back to a former North Korean political prisoner.