US academics not exempted from travel ban to Pyongyang

No special exemptions have been given so far for academics who are United States citizens to teach at the private Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which has been hard hit by the US ban on travel to North Korea in the wake of the death of US student Otto Warmbier last year.

Warmbier was returned to the US in 2017 after being detained in January 2016 in North Korea, dying shortly after his return to US soil. Warmbier’s father is due to attend the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea which began last week, as is, separately, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, according to reports. The presence of Warmbier’s father at the South Korean games is likely to focus attention on currently tense US-North Korean relations, which could continue to affect academics wanting to travel to Pyongyang.

Although the US State Department has said there could be exemptions in special cases to the travel ban which came into effect on 1 September, so far no visas had been granted to US academics to teach at PUST.

Yu-Taik Chon, PUST’s Korean-American head, told a conference in Washington DC last week he had been unable to go to North Korea since the travel ban took effect, affecting more than half the 130 foreign faculty and staff at PUST.

To fill the gap, some PUST graduates and graduates of the PUST sister institution in China, Yanbian University of Science and Technology, have come to help teach, Chon said.

“In the spring semester starting at the beginning of March we will still be unable to have US passport holders come to teach,” Colin McCulloch, a spokesperson for PUST told University World News. McCulloch said PUST had invited more non-US academics.

For example, Federico Tenga, an expert on Bitcoin, was in Pyongyang in November to teach computer science and finance students at PUST about the virtual currency Bitcoin and blockchain technology because, as he explained in a recent interview, “they want their students to be exposed to the innovations of the outside world”.

North Korean students at PUST “speak English very well. Not all of them are super-fluent, but the language was not an issue,” Tenga said in the interview in November.

“As computer science students they definitely came to the class with a bit of background knowledge, and they’re pretty good programmers, but since they don’t have much access to the outside world they obviously haven’t experienced the same internet that a European computer science student has experienced,” Tenga said.

The impact of the travel ban on the last semester “was significant, because the ban was introduced rapidly and we had already made plans which were disrupted”, McCulloch said. “We work about six months ahead in terms of planning personnel resources, gaining approval for visas etc.”

“Quite a few lecturers at PUST come to us on a sabbatical from a faculty position in a Western university, or between doctoral, post-doc or other teaching or research appointments; and our long-term personnel also don't want merely to wait on the side-lines,” McCulloch explained. “We had to rapidly reorganise; and in many cases the classes were continued but with local [North Korean] faculty coming in from other universities in Pyongyang.”


However, PUST is upbeat about the next semester.

“Some non-US personnel also withdrew due to mounting security concerns last summer. I believe that in most cases they have reassessed the situation and will return for the spring semester,” McCulloch said, referring to North Korean missile launches last year which affected perceptions about security on the Korean peninsula.

“The coming spring semester will be better because the university has learned from its experiences of last semester and arranged to have about 70% of the necessary teaching staff,” Chon is quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency as saying.

PUST has also been hit by ratcheted-up sanctions over North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, McCulloch said. “There are a lot of ongoing operational difficulties, not only from the travel ban but also from the sanctions and general attitudes about 'engagement', with problems handling funds for day-to-day expenses, even food supplies, and resources such as laboratory materials for life sciences teaching and the medical/dental teaching and clinics,” McCulloch said.

"Our school [PUST] is not a target of sanctions. We don't have any problem delivering the funds, but the problem is the means of delivery; because all banks didn't want to cooperate with us, we had to use other means," Chon said.