Pyongyang University of Science and Technology by its nature attracts controversy, even without hacking allegations.
At the university, founded by evangelical Christian Korean-American James Kim, a select group of North Korean students study under the direction of foreign teachers, many of whom are Christians and all of whom do so without pay. The administrators and supporters of the school highlight that it exposes North Koreans to outsiders and new ideas, while detractors question the usefulness of the program, and the school’s role in amplifying North Korea’s structural inequalities by teaching to such an “elite” core group.
And some allegations are more serious: At the end of November, two North Korean defectors, one of whom is believed to have worked in cyber warfare for the regime, alleged that PUST graduates are being recruited by the Korean People’s Army to work in cyber terrorism, and called on supporters of the university to cut ties with it.
Such allegations are especially serious because North Korean hackers are believed to have victimized South Korean – and other – targets on multiple occasions.
But is the university actually teaching to hack foreign targets? Those currently and formerly affiliated with the school say no. And if not, is PUST teaching them skills that could provide a base to learn hacking later? Some argue that North Korea’s top students learn the skill somewhere else if not at PUST, probably a university where they wouldn’t be exposed to foreign teachers and foreign ideas.
‘PUST is our effort to internationalize North Korea even for a little bit and giving North Koreans the chance to learn about the Western world’
Chan-mo Park, the chancellor of PUST, told NK News that the school does not teach students to hack. Furthermore, he said that that their curriculum is “not secret at all,” and has been shared during his briefing with the U.S. Department of State.
“PUST is our effort to internationalize North Korea even for a little bit and giving North Koreans the chance to learn about the Western world,” he said. “Our school is a Christian school and all of professors who work here are working voluntarily but with good will to provide service for North Koreans. I mean, why would we ever teach North Koreans on how to hack someone?”
Park provided NK News with what he said was the full list of courses at the university, which included math, science and a wide variety of computer technology courses.
But while none of the courses were “hacking” courses per se, a Seoul-based computer engineering professor said that learning how to hack was an essential part of learning computer engineering. The professor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that students needed to learn hacking for defensive purposes, but indicated this information could be put to use for other purposes.
‘One must learn the theory of hacking to excel in defending data from the attacks of hackers’
“Yes they do, not only for North Korea but in U.S. and in (my university) we teach theory on hacking as a required subject,” he said. “One must learn the theory of hacking to excel in defending data from the attacks of hackers. So to make that possible, any computer engineering would teach the theory of hacking.”
But even if PUST graduates do go on to hack, one observer said eliminating it would not end hacking by the North, but would end PUST’s other, positive aspects.
“It may be possible to close PUST through consistent pressure from abroad, since this has the potential to frighten away the funding upon which it presumably relies. However, this would be akin to treating a symptom rather than the cause,” said Chris Green, Ph.D candidate at Leiden University.
“Hacking activities seem to be a plank in North Korea’s logical strategy of asymmetric warfare with powerful opponents, and for as long as vital national interests are seen as being served by the actions of hackers, Pyongyang will find a way to train young people in the skills necessary to keep doing it. This training could then end up happening without any of the attendant benefits that accrue to the acquisition of various critical faculties in a somewhat international environment like PUST.”
The most famous – or infamous, depending on who one asks – former teacher at PUST is author Suki Kim, whose memoir Without You There is No Us depicted her time teaching at the university. Following its publication last year, Kim’s memoir raised the ire of PUST staff and others who felt she had betrayed those she worked with, and she countered such criticism by stating the need to bring to light the truth about how North Koreans, particularly those at its elite schools, live.
Kim, however told NK News she hadn’t seen any evidence of the students being taught to hack.
“Regarding the defectors’ claims of PUST being a breeding ground for hackers, there is no direct proof, and their position is inherently biased,” she said. “And I doubt that you would be able to find any valid witness report from PUST because the occasional visitors only get shown a theater setup – like the students sitting in front of a Google page open, that kind of thing – and the evangelical teachers who are there long enough to know the inner workings … won’t speak about anything that is against the rule,” she said.
“Although the students were not being taught the internet while I was there – and even if they claim that they do now, i.e surfing the internet and Googling Kim Jong Un, which I would find hard to believe as much as I would like to believe so – one does have to question why they are being taught English to such an obsessive degree, and if that might signal some sort of a prerequisite for the future roles, which involve some minor levels of hacking, for these students whose skill lies in science and technology, but that’s still all just a conjecture, and I would be hesitant to make that kind of a leap, and I sincerely hope that’s not what is in store for the young men I loved.”
Picture: Uri Tours, Flickr Creative Commons
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