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.
Chin-Kyung “James” Kim was born in South Korea and made his fortune through fashion, including a wig importing business in Florida, before opening a university in northeast China in 1992. The Yanbian University of Science and Technology grew steadily in size and reputation.
From China, Kim traveled periodically to North Korea for famine relief. On a 1998 trip, he was arrested and accused of working with the CIA. After more than a month of interrogation, he was prepared to die. Instead, he was released. Two years later, North Korean officials visited his university in China and asked whether he would open a similar school in Pyongyang.
Kim raised more than $35 million over 10 years touring a circuit of Korean churches in places such as Seoul, Houston and McLean. The South Korean government donated $1 million in 2006. Kim also recruited high-level scientists to help, including Park, then president of a South Korean university, and Malcolm Gillis, former president of Rice University.
Fundraising and political support sputtered with each North Korean nuclear test or artillery launch across the border. Economic sanctions inhibited efforts to stock laboratories with high-tech equipment. But the 230-acre campus, with 17 buildings, held its first classes in October 2010.
Every decision is made with abundant caution — starting with the titles of academic programs. A North Korean leadership team vetoed the “management and business administration” program name as “too westernized”; it is now called “international finance and management.” The proposed “biotechnology” program was renamed “agriculture and life sciences” to avoid any appearance of a connection to biological weapons.
Eventually, the 300-student university plans to add schools of architecture and public health and enroll 2,000 students.
Pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his late father, founding leader Kim Il Sung, hang in every classroom. Students are expected to attend classes espousing the government’s political philosophy. Such concessions to the dictatorship have discouraged many potential donors. Most professors are paid through church sponsorships or not at all.
Still, school officials say they have been given unprecedented liberties in a country with few freedoms, securing the first private lease on government-owned land, as well as Internet access for faculty, and eventually — they are promised — for students.
The university has fairly steady electricity despite widespread energy shortages. This year, it has remained open while many schools have closed, their students mobilized for construction projects related to next year’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
Park, who teaches computer science, described students hungry to learn and a formal classroom demeanor that recalls an older Korea. Dressed in suits and ties, students arrive to class before the professor and stay long after to ask questions.
So far, the only women on campus, apart from professors, are military guards.
Karen Best, a University of Wisconsin English instructor who taught academic reading and writing at the Pyongyang school last summer, said her students boasted about their country. They praised their monuments, their socialism, their lean diet (with less fatty meat, they said, than Americans eat) — and criticized “American imperialists” who are “occupying South Korea.”
Many were also genuinely curious about the United States. They played soccer with Best after class, ate meals together and snapped digital pictures.
“I felt like I had a good relationship with many students,” she said. “That’s what I left feeling the best about.”