Where Pyongyang's elite are taught by Americans

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology chancellor Park Chan Mo said the arrests were not related to the teachers' work. But the men are accused of "hostile acts", turning them into bargaining chips as North Korean-US ties hit a new low.
Pyongyang University of Science and Technology chancellor Park Chan Mo said the arrests were not related to the teachers' work. But the men are accused of "hostile acts", turning them into bargaining chips as North Korean-US ties hit a new low.PHOTO: REUTERS

N. Korean university run by Christians gives regime rare access to US citizens, two of whom have been arrested

SEOUL • Set on more than 100ha in North Korea's capital, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology obeys the rules of the Kim family cult.

Atop its main building, large red characters praise "General Kim Jong Un", the country's provocative young leader. At the front of lecture halls hang smiling portraits of his father and grandfather, who led the nation before him.

Yet, the school is different in one striking way. In a country that bans religion, it is run by evangelical Christians.

Founded seven years ago by a South Korea-born American, the school has thrived due to a deal with the leadership.

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It offers children of the North's elite - 500 or so hand-picked students who live on campus - an education they cannot get elsewhere - international finance, management and computer science, all conducted in English by an international faculty.

But the school may offer the North Korean government something else as well: leverage. In the past month, the government has arrested two of the school's volunteers, both United States citizens.

While university chancellor Park Chan Mo said the arrests were not related to the teachers' work at the school, the men were accused of "hostile acts", a charge often used against people accused of spying or proselytising. That effectively makes them bargaining chips in the high-stakes conflict between Pyongyang and Washington.

  • 500 The number of children of North Korea's elite hand-picked to live and study on the campus of Christian-run Pyongyang University of Science and Technology

As Mr Kim pursues a destabilising nuclear weapons programme and the Trump administration warns that the time for "strategic patience" is over, the school gives the regime access to a rare commodity in their country: US citizens.

The volunteers' arrests have cast a light on the school and the ways in which critics say it has, perhaps inadvertently, aided the regime.

Some of them say the school is training the future elite of a dictatorial regime that abuses human rights and threatens its neighbours with nuclear weapons.

At the university, course materials must be approved by the North Korean authorities, who have their own staff members on campus. Faculty members must have "guides" when they venture off campus.

The teachers, many of whom are Korean-American missionaries, can practise their faith among themselves. But they are not allowed to proselytise. They have to watch what they say and students must report any subversive comments.

For the staff of about 90 foreign volunteers, it is a chance to gain a foothold in an atheistic country by befriending future North Korean leaders and teaching them an international mindset.

"We want to teach the North Koreans how to catch fish, rather than giving them fish," said Dr Park, also a Korean-American. "This will help narrow the economic gap between the two Koreas and the cost of the eventual reunification."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2017, with the headline 'Where Pyongyang's elite are taught by Americans'. Print Edition | Subscribe