US travel ban will hit teaching at private university

A United States decision to ban all travel by US citizens to North Korea from September will affect Pyongyang’s only private university, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology or PUST in the North Korean capital, which employs a significant number of US citizens on its teaching staff.

PUST, which teaches in English and has some 500 undergraduates, employs up to 80 foreign faculty on longer- and short-term contracts. Around 40 of them are US citizens, mainly of Korean ethnicity, PUST has said. Only a few of the US nationals are dual citizens who may be able to use their other passport for travel into North Korea.

“The Department of State has determined that the serious risk to United States nationals of arrest and long-term detention represents imminent danger to the physical safety of United States nationals travelling to and within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” says the Federal Register notice of 2 August signed by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

“Therefore ... all United States passports are declared invalid for travel to, in or through the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea unless specially validated for such travel.”

The ban begins on 1 September and will initially last for one year. The State Department already flagged up in late July that it planned to ban citizens travelling to North Korea in the wake of the death of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier.

Warmbier was arrested in North Korea in January 2016 while visiting the country as part of a tour group, and was held captive by the regime for a year and a half. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in North Korea in March 2016, ostensibly for stealing a propaganda poster during his visit to the country, and at some point fell into a coma.

Warmbier died on 19 June after being transferred to the US in a coma, the circumstances of which have still not been adequately explained by the North Korean authorities, and his death provoked international condemnation and concerns about the safety of other visitors.

Very limited exceptions

Despite lobbying by PUST officials in Washington DC, only very limited exemptions were included in the current announcement. These include US journalists, the Red Cross and humanitarian aid workers.

US citizens whose travel to North Korea is regarded as “otherwise in the national interest” will be considered for exemptions. However, the current version of the document would apply only to a single return trip to North Korea.

"If we didn't get an exception, we would basically have to stop our work,” Colin McCulloch, director of external relations for PUST, told University World News via email in late July, adding that PUST had regular contact with relevant officials in the US administration.

“For the moment, naturally we are concerned that a travel ban would have a big impact on our ability to staff many of our courses, as well as the medical and dental clinics and professional training which we provide,” McCulloch said. He would not comment further after the 2 August announcement, saying only that PUST’s leadership was continuing discussions with the US authorities.

PUST has already seen two of its staff members detained in North Korea. Tony Kim, who also goes by his Korean name, Kim Sang-duk, taught accounting at the university before he was detained at an airport in April and charged with unspecified hostile criminal acts. Kim Hak-song was held in May after spending several weeks doing “agricultural development work with PUST’s experimental farm”, the university said at the time. He was also charged with unspecified ‘hostile acts’.

The university has said it understood that the arrests were not linked to its work.

PUST, which opened its doors in 2010, insists that keeping academic channels open through projects like PUST can only help mend tensions between North Korea and other countries.

Keeping channels open

The university said in a recent statement: “It is the international Korean community who are involved in supporting PUST and who provide many of our personnel; and for them, even more than anyone else, PUST embodies a practical project of Korean reconciliation.

“A lot of effort has been spent over the past seven years that PUST has been operating; and many more years of planning and construction before that; so the prospect of this progress being undermined (whether that was an intended or unintended consequence of the US government order) will be deeply disappointing to everyone concerned.”

McCulloch told University World News last year that sanctions plus a generally negative attitude regarding North Korea had spilled over into academic exchanges generally. “Universities and companies that might host [our students] get extremely nervous and get cold feet, so it is quite difficult for us to have close relationships.”