NORTH KOREA: First international university opens

The first intake of hand-picked North Korean students is set to start classes next week at Pyongyang's first foreign-funded university. This follows months of delays because of political tensions internationally and between North and South Korea.

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is funded by US and South Korean donors but has been empty since construction was completed just over a year ago. Arrival of the students will be the first time an institution not owned and run by the North Korean state has been allowed to run classes on the country's soil.

Some 60 graduate students and 150 undergraduates are due to begin their first classes in mid-May, the university's co-chairman Professor Malcolm Gillis told University World News. Gillis is a former President of Rice University in Texas and a co-chair of the university's founding committee.

But with classes already delayed several times, most recently postponed from early April because of tensions over the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, Gillis said the exact date could not be laid in stone.

"We are not going to have an empty campus, I guarantee that, but we understand that things don't work in perfect fashion," said Gillis, an economics adviser to the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in the 1990s, when Kim was still in opposition.

He said the project had come a long way: "Everyone told us it was going to be impossible [and] it has not been easy."

A third of the 50 or so teaching staff due to start classes are South Korean and their safety in the North must be guaranteed. Another third are ethnic Koreans holding foreign citizenship, mainly American, who are also understandably nervous.

The rest will be foreign academics from other nations teaching subjects such as information technology, agriculture, health, engineering and construction, and business.

The university is modelled on the Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, a Korean-speaking enclave of China's Jilin province, close to the border with North Korea.

Set up 20 years ago, mainly with money raised from the evangelical Christian South Korean community, Yanbian was the first foreign-funded university in China, with teaching in English, Korean and Chinese. Many of its graduates are now being hired by big South Korean companies expanding in China.

Founding President of Yanbian, James Kim, is a US citizen and is now also Founding President of the Pyongyang university for which he helped raised US$35 million to build and equip.

Kim said that at first North Korea objected to having a Korean-International university in "their back yard" and was suspicious of its aims. But eventually the backers of the Yanbian university were invited to set up a similar institution in Pyongyang.

"It was they who asked us to come in and build this school," Kim said.

* See our Features section this week for more on the background to this development.