On the 13th December 2013 the ongoing leader of North-Korea, Kim Jong-un has made another step attempt to tighten his iron grip on power in North-Korea. As Kim Jong-un gained power after his father’s death in 2011. The hopes that he will be open for changes in North-Korea were quickly shattered. He, as his grandfather Kim IL Sung and father Kim Jong IL before him, has been leading a country as a dictator. North-Korea is one of the most secretive nations in the world. As stated by the central intelligence agency (CIA) the grandfather Kim IL Song adopted a policy of ostensible diplomatic and economic “self-reliance” as a check against the U.S. and the rest of the world. 1 Up till today the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), under the rule of Kim Jong-un is still seeing this as their main way of leading the country. Their foreign policy is built on forming a threat for surrounding countries with their nuclear abilities. Their military provocations such as missile test launches in 2006, 2009 and 2013 show that North-Korea is still seeing itself as a military might and no end of provocations are in sight. But the country with all its propagandistic implementations and its military provocations cannot hide the fact that North-Korea has some significant problems it faces as nation. According to the human rights watch (HRW) the DPRK systematically violates the rights of its population. 2 According to the 2010 Global Hunger Index presented by the newspaper The Guardian, North-Korea scored 19.4 points. As these points do not say anything on first sight, the International Food Policy Research Institute classifies this level as “alarming”. 3
Ex-dictator Kim Jong Il with current dictator Kim Jong-un of North-Korea
On the short term any significant changes will not occur in my opinion as long as Kim Jong-un keeps his iron grip on the country and stays in power. But there is hope the situation in North-Korea will drastically change from inside the dictatorial system.
The Pyongyang University of Science & Technology (PUST) was set up in 2010 under supervision of the now passed away ex-president Kim Jong IL. Before this a similar university was set up in North-China. The Chinese university also teaches its students in a western style to fully understand how western societies are structured but with far les control than in North-Korea.
Maybe, China even put pressure on Kim Jong Il’s father to build PUST to become more linked with the outside world?
Built and maintained under strict supervision it is a unique university by North-Korean standards. The university is situated near the main capital Pyongyang. The students which attend PUST are chosen by the regime after a thorough background checkup by the secretive state. This check-up is done to minimize the risk that the students will use the information learnt against the regime in the future. This shows that the regime does even not trust its own high ranking citizens even though most of the students have high ranking family ties inside the Kim Jong-un family or regime. What makes the university one of a kind is that the teachers that lead the day to day classes are western orientated. The university is led by Dr. James Kim (President of PUST). As a devoted Christian himself, he sees his role at PUST as a mission of God. He states that this university creates the unique chance of peacefully transforming North-Korea on the long run. In my opinion this is quite interesting to see. A nation ideological remote as no other it is not allowing any freedom of belief. For example the teachers at PUST all have the right to practice their profession freely. The teachers even have their own church, with regular church liturgy they are able attend. Practicing their profession is one thing, but doing this in one of the most isolated nations on earth is another. 4 According to Reuters in February an Australian missioner has been arrested whilst doing missionary work. He is the second missionary facing imprisonment after American missionary Kennth Bae has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor. This makes practicing christianity in North-Korea very dangerous. 5 As for the normal North-Korean citizen Kim Jong-un is their supreme leader with a god like status.6 This is can be seen in the fact that his grandfather and father can still be visited as they are kept in their glass framed tombs. Another remarkable fact is that the teachers that teach at PUST are all teaching in English. For a normal western educated student this is not a big thing. But North-Koreas arch enemy is the United States of America and teaching in the language of a hated enemy is not really common. Furthermore the now president of PUST Dr. James Kim condemned in 1998 of being a spy whilst trying to bring aid inside the country. All these aspects make it clear that the North-Korean regime is putting aside a couple of its goals for this special university. This made me wonder if North-Korea is starting to change for the good.
The teachers even have their own church, with regular church liturgy they are able attend.
On the one side the devoted Christians state that this is the only way to create at least a realistic chance of any change in North-Korea by showing them what the world around them has to offer. On the other hand the regime, knowing that these special students will have high ranking positions inside the regime, can make use of the information gathered and thought by the western teachers to further keep up the isolation policy of North-Korea.
According to Lord Alton (Chairman of All-Party Parliamentary Group on North-Korea) in an interview with BBC, this one of university can create a scenario that these young students will one day question the ideology and the system in their country.
As already mentioned the university is based on significant contradictions. As being surrounded by contradictions is nothing entirely new concerning North-Korea, in my opinion this university brings these contradictions to a total new scale. Mark Fitzpatrick from the international Institutes for Strategic Studies notices this. Furthermore he states that North-Korea has come to a point where becoming more familiar with western thoughts and technologies even when facing the risk of students minds getting “polluted” by western ideas is necessary. Colin McCulloch (Senior Business Lecturer) teacher at PUST explained to BBC reporter Chris Rogers that the leaders and government officials of North-Korea must connect to the outside world, in our modern age to stay at least “connected”. With connected he means knowing what is happening outside North-Korea that could influence the nations itself.
This all does not mean that the regime closes its eyes completely. The students are monitored throughout the day as are the western teachers. Nothing is left to chance. For example when students need to use the internet at PUST, a luxury in North-Korea, they must inform the secretary that oversees the internet and explain what they are intending to do on with it. As for the teachers they must inform the PUST officials on their daily educational content they want to present the students. Several teachers informed BBC reporter Chris Rogers that this constant control does not end in the classroom. Even in their free time the regime keeps a close eye on the wareabouts fo the teachers activities. So are the teachers really able to give a clear picture of the western society? And the students, when under control 24/7, are they able to create an own opinion?
President of PUST Dr. James Kim
Critics on the other hand criticize the University for being a bad thing for the future of the citizens in North-Korea because it ignores the poverty in the nation. They say the money spent on the university can be used to help end the suffering of the normal citizens. But Dr. James Kim recalls that the only way of helping the country is to do this by starting at the very core of the problem. The core of the problem is education. Education in North-Korea is highly influenced by the regime. Students are normally thought what the regime thinks is right and true. PUST on the contrary is very different from normal North-Korean educational practices. The students are obliged to learn things normally kept secret to them. In my opinion Dr. James Kim is right. He has created a situation in that a small group of North-Koreans are able to learn other ideas on how the world looks like. This can make a couple of students question the regime and could try to change North-Koreas policy for good. In the end North-Korea can change as Myanmar did after choosing to open its country for foreign influences for good in 2010. 7 When this happens, change is far more likely.
Burma (Myanmar) changing
This brings me to my conclusion. In my opinion this university is an extraordinary attempt by a couple of devoted Christians to fight the North-Korean regime from inside not by looking at short term solutions, but at long term solutions instead. Of course the obvious reasons why North-Korea tolerates this university is because they want to know how their “enemy” functions. This brings the risk that North-Korea only does this to understand how the west works and can use this information against the west when practicing new nuclear attacks for example. This is a risk I think the west must be willing to take if this university can make a difference towards more freedom for North-Korean citizens. Change will not happen overnight. Myanmar formally under dictatorial rule has opened its country to the world in 2010 after the regime decided to make a 360 degrees change towards a fully democratic country. PUST can be a start of something big for North-Korea. If this attempt does not work out as we hope, we can always look back and say that these people at least tried to do something tangible rather than only via diplomatic channels that had almost no effect in the last decades.
- https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html ↩
- http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2013/country-chapters/north-korea ↩
- http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/datablog/2010/oct/11/global-hunger-index ↩
- http://www.opendoorsuk.org/resources/worldwatch/north_korea.php ↩
- http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/19/us-korea-north-idUSBREA1I0AM20140219 ↩
- http://edition.cnn.com/2011/12/19/world/asia/kim-jong-un-profile/ ↩
- http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/10/14/us-myanmar-timeline-idUSTRE79D19720111014 ↩