PUST stays open, but British Council suspends teaching

Despite new travel restrictions on United States passport-holders and the increased political tension around the Korean peninsula related to missile tests and military manoeuvres, the private Pyongyang University of Science and Technology or PUST, which teaches in English, commenced its academic year as planned last week, the university said in a statement.

“The initial arrangements for classes have been adapted to suit the available resources and the university is continuing its unique work as the only foreign-supported university in the DPR Korea,” the PUST statement said, referring to North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The university said it was recruiting more non-American volunteers willing to teach there, but for now the semester started with 20 to 25 non-American foreign volunteers.

However, replacing US citizens may not be easy, as other countries follow with travel advisories, including Singapore last week. The United Kingdom government last week updated its travel advice warning against “all but essential travel” to North Korea, leading to the suspension of the British Council’s English language teaching programmes in Pyongyang, in partnership with seven universities and three schools there.

“While daily life in the capital city Pyongyang may appear calm,” the UK’s Foreign Office advisory says, “the security situation in North Korea can change with little notice and with no advance warning of possible actions by the North Korean authorities. This poses significant risks to British visitors and residents.”

The British Council’s programme has operated for some 17 years, expanding from three universities to seven in 2014. Earlier this year four British teachers were involved in the programme, teaching groups of university and secondary school students.

While the British Council would not comment on the number of staff involved, a spokesperson informed University World News on Thursday that “all team members are currently out of the country”.

“The British Council suspended the English language teaching programme in Pyongyang when the travel advice from the UK government changed,” the spokesperson said. “The British Council had been discussing an extension to the programme. Following suspension of the programme, these discussions are on hold.”

The UK travel advisory was issued on 3 September in the wake of North Korea's underground nuclear test "which could lead to further instability in the region," the government statement said.

US ban

The US government banned the use of US passports to travel to North Korea in the wake of the death of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who died in June after being returned to the US in a coma. He was detained in North Korea in January 2016 after visiting the country as part of a tour group.

The US ban came into effect on 1 September. PUST said it usually has 60-80 foreign faculty members at any one time during each semester and about half are US citizens.

“With cooperation from North Korean staff, PUST has met the minimum requirements to start the semester. PUST leadership anticipates that additional faculty will join as the semester progresses. The university is actively seeking additional personnel who are willing to go to Pyongyang for short visits, to increase the number of foreigner-taught specialist courses,” the university said.

The US government has just published information on how to apply for an exemption from the travel ban. The university said “the leadership of PUST is evaluating how to proceed with this”, in common with other organisations with long-term humanitarian work in North Korea, who will be badly affected by the travel ban.

“The leadership and faculty of PUST remain committed to do the best for its students, in a difficult situation, to maintain the progress of their education and to provide all the practical facilities on the campus, for students and local workers,” the university added.

“We believe that person-to-person contacts, academic bridge-building and developing capabilities that meet North Koreans’ real needs offer a way forward in a spirit of peace and reconciliation.”