Government approves student exchanges with North Korea

South Korea’s Ministry of Unification in Seoul has given the go ahead for students at the country’s top university to discuss academic exchanges with North Korea’s Kim Il Sung University, with the hope that regular exchanges and joint projects can be set up between the two most prestigious universities of North and South Korea.

The Student Council of Seoul National University (SNU) – the country’s top institution and alma mater of many of South Korea’s top leaders – together with a specially convened committee at the university, set up on 17 May with the goal of promoting inter-Korean exchanges, filed the request to be allowed to initiate contact with the North Korean university on 24 May with the ministry in Seoul that deals with intra-Korean affairs.

The SNU committee has said as many as 100 SNU students have expressed a wish to take part in such exchanges with the North. If successful, it will be the first time in SNU’s 70-year history that student exchanges with the North will take place.

Approval for SNU to open discussions with Kim Il Sung University, which generally admits the offspring of North Korean Party elites, was announced by the ministry in Seoul on Tuesday 12 June, just as a historic summit was underway in Singapore between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and United States President Donald Trump.

The SNU committee has said it will now contact Kim Il Sung University as early as next week to initiate discussions. Projects could include SNU students working alongside North Korean students at historical sites in Pyongyang.


SNU has in the past informally pushed for exchanges with the North Korean institution without much progress. Kim Il Sung University had reportedly told SNU informally that both universities should “observe the situation” for the time being.

SNU President Sung Nak-in reportedly met with his counterpart from Kim Il Sung University, Thae Hyong-chol, on the sidelines of a ceremony marking the 120th anniversary of Peking University in Beijing, China, on 4 May.

But there have been more recent suggestions that the North is more amenable to exchanges.

"There have been some suggestions for university-level exchanges with Kim Il Sung University, particularly following the recent inter-Korean summit talks. The message was delivered via foreign universities with ties to the North's university," an SNU official was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency as saying shortly after the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the border village of Panmunjom, which took place on 27 April.

Favourable perceptions of the North and its leader among university students in South Korea have rocketed since the April inter-Korean summit. For example, a survey at Kookmin University in Seoul carried out by Lee Chang-hyun, a journalism professor, found that almost 49% of freshmen at Kookmin said they had a positive image of Kim after the 27 April summit – a huge jump from just 5% saying they had favourable perceptions of the North Korean leader before the summit.

Lee said the students had been particularly influenced by seeing Kim in live broadcasts, which changed their stereotyped view of Kim as a cruel, unpredictable dictator to a youthful, charming and open-minded leader.

Two thirds of the students expressed negative feelings towards the North before the inter-Korean Summit, but this fell to just 18% post-summit.

Towards joint research projects

The summit-induced thaw in relations between North and South could also open the way to joint research projects following Moon’s reference at the summit to the importance of science and technology to the two Koreas.

In recent years Kim Jong-un said Kim Il Sung University scientists should hold regular international academic seminars and expand joint research with prestigious universities and research organisations in other countries. Kim Il Sung University was founded by the current North Korean leader's grandfather.

South Korean officials have said the two Koreas could jointly study the possibility of a volcanic eruption at Mount Baekdu in the North. Pyongyang suggested such a joint study in 2007 and 2011, but discussions fell apart after the North's military nuclear and missile tests strained inter-Korea relations.

"We could also invite young scientists from the North to South Korean universities such as the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology [KAIST] for scientific exchanges," a South Korean official said.

SNU is not alone in looking to the North. The University of Seoul also said during its centenary celebrations in May that it will push for inter-Korean university exchanges.

Student exchanges would be seen as a significant breakthrough with the potential to change young people’s attitudes towards reunification of the two Koreas, officials say. Overall support for reunification has been declining in South Korea where just 56% of people see it as a necessary goal, down from almost 70% in 2014, according to a survey last year by the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification.

Among young people in their 20s, fewer than 40% said it was necessary and just 7.2% of young people responding to the survey said reunification should take place as soon as possible.