N Korean leader says university must be ‘world class’

North Korea’s top higher education institution, Kim Il-sung University in the capital Pyongyang, must advance to become a “world-class institution”, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has said in a letter to students, staff and professors of Pyongyang’s institution.

According to the letter dated 26 September, on the occasion of the university’s 70th anniversary and made public by North Korea’s official media in early October, Kim said the university, which was founded by his grandfather, should hold regular international academic seminars, and expand joint research with prestigious universities and research organisations in other countries.

The university should also let in foreign students who would learn the Korean language, and should send North Korean doctoral students to study in other countries, according to state-run media. In his letter, “on the basic tasks” facing the university, Kim said the institution “should produce outstanding papers”, present them at international seminars and publish them in global journals.

North Korea experts say while similar exhortations by the country’s university presidents are commonly published every year for domestic propaganda purposes and to big up the country’s science and technology 'prowess', it is more unusual coming from Kim himself.

While the bulk of the letter covered the university’s role in strengthening ideological education, Kim called on the university council and “university Party guidance committee” to help develop the university under a long-term plan “and with methodology so that its colleges, facilities and departments will make competitive efforts to surpass the major indexes of the most prestigious universities in the world”.

The letter has also attracted the attention of academics overseas looking for clues of greater opening up by the country or its institutions.

North Korea is largely cut off from the outside world due to broad international sanctions imposed particularly since 2010 because of its controversial nuclear programme. In January the country tested its fourth nuclear device.

Anniversary symposium

Kim Il-sung University had reportedly invited a number of foreign academics to its 70th anniversary symposium though most were from universities in its close ally China, according to reports from the North Korean Central News Agency.

“Every year Kim ll-sung University holds an international symposium and they invite foreign faculty to go there and make pre-planned presentations – they do this for prestige, it’s not really about exchange,” said Matthew Reichel, head of the Pyongyang Project of the East West Coalition, a non-governmental organisation based in Canada that arranges student and academic exchanges between North Korea and the West.

“Quite often they make some big announcement that they are going to ‘continue internationalising’,” Reichel said, adding that it did not mean they would actually do so. However, Reichel also noted: “It’s rare that you see the country’s leader speak in this way, so directly.

“It’s a nod to the work that universities are doing; the fact that it was made public shows that it is a bit more serious. Who knows what it will manifest into,” Reichel said.

“I can’t really see it happening,” said Aidan Foster Carter, a writer and researcher on North Korea, formerly at Leeds University, UK, referring to stepped-up exchanges and research collaboration with overseas academics. He described the letter as “delusional” in its aim for Kum Il-Sung University to become world class.

However, Foster Carter said North Korea was having real difficulties in modernising its economy and had been reaching out to learn from the outside. “It would be interesting if some universities somewhere in the world would test this [apparent opening] in practice.”

Perceptible opening

Others note very slow, perceptible academic opening from a situation where North Korea would only send students and academics to Russia and China.

Uwe Morawetz of the International Peace Foundation in Vienna organised a visit in April to universities in Pyongyang by three Nobel laureates – Aaron Ciechanover, an Israeli biologist at Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Finn Kydland, a Norwegian economist based at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and Richard Roberts, a Briton who is currently chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs in Massachusetts, US – which was described as an academic exchange, mainly to discuss medical and economic research.

Morawetz told University World News the week-long visit had been “very easy to organise”.

“They [the North Koreans] were very open to dialogue and we did not have any problems in organising this,” he said.

While the main event was held at Kim Il-sung University, the three Nobel laureates also held seminars with students and scholars at Kim Chaek University of Technology, Pyongyang, and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a private postgraduate institution set up with donations from South Korea and South Koreans in the United States.

Ciechanover and Roberts said at a news conference held in Beijing after their Pyongyang visit in May that they had invited North Korean students to come and work in their laboratories, but it was thought to be very unlikely that this would actually happen.

Roberts said there was a strong desire in North Korea for more international exchanges. However, he noted North Korea’s academic institutions suffered from a lack of modern scientific equipment. He added that restrictions on internet use also prevented most scientists from collaborating with colleagues in other countries or accessing the latest scientific literature.


Nonetheless there have been small changes. “Six or seven years ago you would not even have a symposium with this many foreigners. Kim Il-Sung University would not have been that open,” said Reichel, referring to the 70th anniversary symposium last month.

“North Korea changes very, very slowly. But they [the leadership] are not interested in cutting North Korea off completely either,” Reichel said.

In the past, any exchanges of academics or students was extremely bureaucratic involving approval first from North Korea’s Ministry of Education and then with the university they were going to and only if there was already an officially approved agreement with that university.

“That’s not really the case anymore. You can definitely get North Korean students [to come] abroad,” Reichel said, although visas to Western countries, many of which do not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, can be tricky to organise.

In some rare examples, North Korean students have been sent in recent years to the University of Cambridge on a one-year programme, and in exchange two Cambridge professors went for a short visit to Pyongyang.

The University of Warwick and University of Westminster in the UK have also taken North Korean students, the latter for courses in computer studies, while half a dozen North Korean academics have been sent yearly for the past few years to the University of British Columbia or UBC in Vancouver, Canada, for six months each time.

The mid-career academics, in their 40s, mainly took part in undergraduate classes at UBC. The problem, however, Reichel noted, is there is almost no interaction between the North Koreans and the rest of the university.

“Nobody at UBC – students, faculty, other departments – were given access to those [North Korean] professors who were here. So there was not really an exchange component. It was more of an education component. And because they were sitting in undergraduate classes it was not about research collaboration; it was more about exposure for North Korean faculty and to teach them about economics.”

Financial restrictions

A bigger problem with organising overseas exchanges is financial. North Korea is a poor country and Kim Il-sung University has little access to foreign exchange, with sanctions further complicating international financial transactions.

“There’s very little in the way of grants available to North Korean students, almost nothing,” Reichel said. “Chinese universities release certain grants and so the North Koreans have some incentives to send people to Chinese universities where it is a lot cheaper [than the West].”

The Pyongyang project organises visits from Stanford University business school and Harvard Kennedy School to Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which, as a private university, is more open than state-run universities such as Kim Il-sung University.

Research collaboration is also not very realistic, particularly given the huge gap in science research capability, equipment and knowledge, and North Korean nervousness about foreigners commenting on the state of its healthcare, in the case of health research.

“This is something that they [North Koreans] have been telling us for years. They want to cooperate in various apolitical fields – like architecture, agriculture and, in a limited capacity, medicine,” Reichel said.