University calm after two foreign academics detained

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or PUST, has said it is not issuing any particular instructions for the protection of its foreign staff in North Korea in the wake of the recent detention by North Korean authorities of two American professors teaching there.

In the past few weeks two US citizens working at PUST – North Korea’s only privately run university – have been detained. Kim Hak-song was detained on 6 May and Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim was detained on 22 April, while trying to fly out of Pyongyang International Airport.

Both are being held on suspicion of 'hostile acts' against the North Korean regime, according to the state-run news agency KCNA. The detentions come at a time when tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen over North Korea’s nuclear missile testing programme.

PUST, which was founded by evangelical Christians in 2010 and caters for the children of the country’s elite, said Kim Hak-song was detained as he was about to leave North Korea “after a visit of several weeks”. During that visit the professor – who is a former professor at Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China, according to AFP – was at PUST to do agricultural development work with PUST’s experimental farm, which belongs to its agricultural department.

PUST is collaborating with American universities, including Texas A&M University, which has a strong agricultural economics programme, to help improve agriculture in North Korea, which is beset by chronic food shortages.

However, the two detentions in quick succession have led to speculation that the North Korean authorities may be targeting the university.

A spokesman for PUST told University World News via email: “We have been led to believe that the investigations of the two recent detainees are not related to anything that has happened on the PUST campus, nor are they connected with the work of PUST.

“They seem to be based on alleged activities that occurred off campus; or perhaps past activities elsewhere. Therefore we are not specially concerned for the remaining, large number of overseas faculty and family members who are currently living and working at PUST.”

The university earlier issued brief statements on 23 April and 8 May in the wake of the detention of each of the two professors, confirming they were members of PUST’s faculty. “Life on campus and the teaching at PUST is continuing as normal for the spring semester,” the most recent statement said.

PUST says: “The relevant embassies in Pyongyang are kept informed of their nationals who are at PUST at any particular time.”

The university added that the general situation around the region is monitored and discussed from time to time with the diplomatic missions in Pyongyang who have responsibility for PUST residents and their advice is followed as appropriate. Sweden’s embassy has oversight and 'protecting power' status for US and Canadian citizens, who make up a significant part of PUST’s foreign residents, it said.

“Everyone who comes here receives verbal and written advice and briefings about the special conditions and culture in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]; and to be careful to observe the particular rules and regulations about behaviour in various situations, what printed and other materials may be brought for teaching or personal use, and so on,” the spokesman said.

The two professors are the third and fourth US citizens to be detained in North Korea – 22-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was arrested in North Korea last year for committing a 'hostile act', allegedly after trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel, and was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour. Korean-American businessman Kim Dong Chul, 62, was given 10 years’ hard labour for alleged spying activities and other offences.