NORTH KOREA: University opens students to the world

James Kim is still trying to understand what led to the unusual invitation from the North Korean government to establish the country's first foreign-funded university.

"Since the Eastern bloc collapsed 20 years ago, North Korea does not have many 'brothers' any more to send their students. There is a big vacuum in their faculty demographic," Kim told a GoogleTech Talk in February, referring to now-departed Soviet-era staff.

"Probably they figured that, rather than sending their students abroad over which they do not have any control... they asked us to come in. Inside this fence they have a better control of us and the students," Kim said.

Although he is now the founding President of the Pyongyang university, Kim is also a US citizen who was founding President of the Yanbian University of Science and Technology which was the model for the North Korean institution.

Based in Yanji, a Korean-speaking enclave of China's Jilin province and close to the border with North Korea, the university was established 20 years ago, mainly with money raised from the evangelical Christian South Korean community. It was the first foreign-funded university in China, with teaching in English, Korean and Chinese.

At first North Korea objected to having a Korean-international university in "their back yard" and was suspicious of its aims, said Kim.

But eventually the Yanbian backers were invited to set up a similar institution in Pyongyang. "It was they who asked us to come in and build this school," said Kim who helped raise US$35 million to establish it.

Student numbers are predicted to eventually rise to 2,000 undergraduates and 600 graduates. None will pay fees, the cost being borne by the North Korean government. Much of the teaching cost - academic numbers are expected to rise to around 250 - will be paid by the university, as will other expenses including modern equipment.

"The facilities will not be materially different from what you see in a US university," said the university's co-chairman Professor Malcolm Gillis, a former President of Rice University in Texas.

Everything has been painstakingly shipped into the isolated nation, including every brick and every bar of steel used in the construction, brought in from China, Kim said. So too have the furnishings and educational materials, including, most controversially, IT equipment that is said to be the most sophisticated of any university in North Korea.

Professor Stuart Thorson, Director of the Korean Affairs Center at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University in the US, has for many years taught information technology at Kim Chaek University of Technology, a state-run institution in Pyongyang .

Thorson described education at North Korean universities as somewhat traditional: "They do sophisticated work in many areas, especially information technology, but usually the labs are not up to the standards of Western universities," he told University World News.

Of the new campus he visited in December, Thorson said: "[It] appears to have a very sophisticated IT infrastructure, with very good networking and very nice computer labs."

Kim said the Pyongyang institution would be different from other North Korean universities because the internet would be available to students and academics. Fibre optic cable now links the university to the nearest network.

But, in response to questions on the likelihood of government internet controls, Kim told the GoogleTech meeting in February: "Even a filtered internet access will be a great thing."

Thorston added: "The North Koreans understand that science is a networked activity and willingness to make those kinds of accommodations is a serious commitment. They also understand that English is part of science training."

When the university is fully functional, graduates will be taught in English while undergraduates will be taught intensive English for the first two years of a four-five year degree so some subjects can be taught in English from the third year.

But internet access is not the only obstacle to be overcome: "UN sanctions and US sanctions [against North Korea] make it very difficult for PUST and Kim Chaek University to do what they want to do," Thorson said.

IT and engineering are both sensitive subjects but Kim said, "We are complying with US law and international law."

He said that while equipping the university he had reported regularly to the US State Department, senators and congressmen to make sure everything was above board and legitimate. He also complied with regulations on dual (civilian-military) use of technologies, which are restricted under the sanctions rules.

Kim's vision for the university was first mooted in 2000 and was originally planned to open in 2007. That vision is now much wider than cutting-edge technology training.

"We will not only teach knowledge but share our experience in the world with [the North Korean students]," he said. "So they can be a good partner with the rest of the world when the time comes, such as when North and South [are] unified.

"They should have someone who can communicate with the South [Korean] people or Western people. That is the goal of this school."