As articulated by Joseph Nye, soft power is the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than by threat or coercion. Soft power exists when a dominant party possesses a sufficiently attractive resource such as culture, political values, or policies, and a subservient party is willing to pursue and internalize that attractive resource.
Although frequently associated with the state and its foreign policy, non-state actors can also develop and possess soft power independent of the state. In particular, educational institutions have long held significant amounts of university soft power that transcends national boundaries.
Knowledge-sharing initiated by educational institutions is a “high-culture” form of soft power, and through knowledge-sharing, these non-state educational actors can leverage soft power to influence a society by educating its future leaders. Knowledge-sharing, as a high-culture form of soft power, provides the international community with a powerful tool to pursue engagement with North Korea.
It is a particularly effective form of engagement because it creates alternative, non-governmental avenues for dialogue that can remain active when the political environment severely limits official lines of communication.
Knowledge-sharing is also a powerful confidence-building tool that facilitates the creation of strong personal relationships that supersede political relations. Nye identifies several avenues of translating soft power into attraction through public diplomacy. One major avenue is cross-cultural exchanges that build personal relationships and understanding between states and intended audiences.
Knowledge-sharing, as a high-culture form of soft power, provides the international community with a powerful tool to pursue engagement with North Korea
This emphasis on relationships and understanding separates public diplomacy for the purposes of attraction from propaganda, which is simply a one-way broadcasting. Knowledge-sharing, by its very nature, is an interactive and bidirectional high-culture activity. It can provide North Korean participants much-needed access to desired knowledge and ideas, and this access carries potential for further socialization effects – the spreading of ideas, customs and values.
Then, can North Korea be a “willing interpreter and receiver” of soft power? Given that knowledge-sharing that focuses on human resource development has been one of the most successful areas of cooperation between North Korea and the international community, we believe that Pyongyang can be a willing interpreter.
With this in mind, the Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program (KPP) of the University of British Columbia (UBC) has been pursuing high-culture soft power engagement with North Korea in the last four years.
PURSUIT OF SOFT POWER ENGAGEMENT
The objective of KPP’s engagement initiative is to facilitate scholarly exchanges with North Korea for human capacity building through knowledge-sharing. It aims to provide North Korean scholars with meaningful opportunities to interact with the Western scholarly community and expand their base of knowledge.
Currently, the KPP facilitates scholarly communication and exchange with North Korea by providing its university faculty members, six each year, with an opportunity to study economics and business for six-month periods at UBC, with the ultimate aim of establishing an enduring and sustainable link between the North Korean and North American scholarly worlds.
Over the last four years since its creation in 2010, the KPP has been hosting 24 North Korean professors from Kim Il Sung University, the University of National Economy, Wonsan University of Economy and the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies. Now in its fourth year, the KPP is the first and the only North American program to educate North Korean university professors for long term periods in economics, finance, trade and business fields.
Our knowledge-sharing engagement is firmly based on our belief that the right to education and access to knowledge is a universal human right
By immersing North Korean professors and scholars in the UBC’s vibrant and diverse academic community, the program allows strong professional and personal relationships to form between North Korean and North American academics through which knowledge, ideas and worldviews are shared.
The KPP also aims to facilitate knowledge-sharing with North Korea through conferences, seminars and focused workshops that bring together international scholars and their North Korean counterparts to participate in meaningful and effective exchange of ideas and views. The KPP held two international conferences in Pyongyang in May 2014 and October 2013 on Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which brought together more than 20 foreign experts, as well as almost 200 North Korean scholars and government officials.
These were rare international conferences held in Pyongyang and received wide media coverage internationally. Also, major North Korean media, including the Korean Central TV, Rodong Sinmun, KCNA and Pyongyang Times carried several articles on them and interviews with the author of this article. The KPP also organized SEZ site visits for the foreign participants of the second conference so that they could visit existing and newly proposed SEZ sites throughout the country.
WHY SOFT POWER?
Our knowledge-sharing engagement is firmly based on our belief that the right to education and access to knowledge is a universal human right. The KPP believes that providing North Korean scholars with access to knowledge through education is in line with efforts to promote human rights. We have chosen to promote human rights by engaging North Korea, and specifically through education, rather than isolating the country, as has been the prevailing strategy of many actors in the past.
We also believe that educators can be powerful agents for change. In all societies of the world, especially, in East Asia where the historical Confucian values have placed an extremely high value on education and the educator, the teacher-student relationship represents trust, respect, and a degree of sanctity. Inherent in this relationship is also great influence.
North Korea is no exception to this historical bias, and North Korean educators occupy a highly trusted and legitimate space within North Korean society. Recognizing the trust, respect, and importance accorded to professors in North Korea, the KPP has chosen to focus on educating professors as the most effective means of disseminating knowledge and norms among the North Korean people.
Pyongyang has demonstrated that it can be a willing interpreter and receiver of the high-culture soft power
Professors are also able to efficiently share knowledge by the very nature of their profession – they teach large numbers of students on a daily basis, year after year, and are able to transfer newly acquired knowledge directly to their students – most of whom will become the next generation of leaders within North Korean society.
By educating professors, the KPP is able to take advantage of a multiplier effect in which knowledge shared with a small number of program participants is made available to a much larger population of students, colleagues and policymakers.
With these principles as a basis for the KPP’s knowledge-sharing activities, the KPP has been working since 2010 to reach the maximum amount of key individuals within North Korea in an effective, efficient and sustainable manner.
WHAT WE EXPECT
KPP participants are expected to use the knowledge and materials gained through their education at UBC in three primary areas: sharing of this knowledge with students through integration into teachings and classes; sharing of this knowledge with colleagues through conducting seminars and publishing research materials; and sharing of this knowledge with policy-makers through consultation.
In order to monitor the effectiveness of the program in achieving these objectives, in-depth exit interviews are conducted to ascertain the participants’ ability and goals regarding sharing knowledge gained from the program upon their return to North Korea. To further monitor and evaluate the program’s effectiveness, we perform follow-up interviews with program participants in North Korea in order to see if the goals set by participants are being achieved.
The KPP believes that providing North Korean scholars with access to knowledge through education is in line with efforts to promote human rights
In these interviews with the past participants, we have found that these program participants were actively taking steps to implement their KPP knowledge and experiences to these ends. They successfully created new courses in their universities drawing on the knowledge acquired through the KPP program and published books and articles. They were also core contributors to North Korea’s “New Economic Management System” policy initiated by the North Korean government in 2012. Being recognized for their accomplishments, several of them were promoted to senior levels within their universities.
A WILLING RECEIVER
By focusing on academic exchanges in business and economics, areas in which the West has a uniquely attractive soft power resource and influence, the KPP has been able to maintain North Korea’s enthusiasm and support for knowledge-sharing.
Despite several significant political events, such as the death of Kim Jong-Il and the subsequent leadership transition, or nuclear weapons/ballistic missile testing and the subsequent political fallout, North Korea has indicated to the KPP its desire for the program to continue uninterrupted.
As such, Pyongyang has demonstrated that it can be a willing interpreter and receiver of the high-culture soft power. As North Korea continues to focus on economic development, we expect to see KPP participants playing a larger role both as educators in their universities and as cutting-edge academics promoting the advantages of expanded scholarly exchange and knowledge-sharing.
Featured Image: KCNA
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