Speaking to NK News in a conference room at Seoul’s foreign press center over coffee and sandwiches, the Chancellor of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Park Chan-mo, is remarkably chipper for a man with two colleagues in a North Korean jail cell.
Then again, running an openly Christian university in one of the world’s most anti-Christian countries requires a positive outlook on life – especially given the circumstances.
On April 22, as Kim Sang-duk, a U.S. citizen also known as Tony Kim, was detained as he made his way to take a plane back to China from Pyongyang. More than a week later, authorities broke their silence, with a state media report accusing the prisoner of “committing criminal acts of hostility” against their country.
Kim’s arrest, at the time, made him one of three Americans in custody in the DPRK: he joins fellow countrymen Otto Warmbier and Kim Dong-chu.
This would be bad enough for the State Department, which has already been accused by the family of Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for tearing down a propaganda poster on a boozy tourism trip, of doing little to help their son.
But just a few days after Tony Kim’s “crimes” were made public, North Korea announced that yet another American had been detained: a Mr. Kim Hak-song, for committing “hostile acts” against the country. Authorities have yet to release any more details about what either of the men is said to have done.
Apart from the surname, the main connection between the two men is that they were both affiliated with PUST. Tony Kim, also a Professor at the PUST-linked Yanbian University Science and Technology in China, taught marketing and economics at the school, and Kim Hak-song worked in agricultural development. As is the university’s modus operandi, neither was paid a salary, as employees are expected to be motivated purely by a Christian desire to teach North Koreans.
The enigmatic university’s presence in North Korea has long been an anomaly. Kim Jong Il played a personal role in setting up the school, knowing full well it was to be Christian-influenced school, linked as it was to Kim Chin-kyung – an eccentric Korean-American businessman.
Park had met Kim years earlier, in 1989 and in China. An IT specialist by profession, Kim had received a proposal from a collaborator to set up an information technology school in the DPRK and asked Park to assess it.
“I found out that whoever wrote the proposal didn’t know much about IT in North Korea so if he took that to North Korea they would have said ‘we already know all those things!’” Park says. “Most people in the world underestimate them.”
The two men stayed in contact, and Kim continued his efforts to mirror the success and the goals of his Yanbian University of Science and Technology (founded in 1992) in North Korea. If the notoriously anti-Christian Chinese government could learn to tolerate a school grounded in a not-so-subtle Christian mission for “Truth, Peace, Love”, the argument went, then so could North Korea.
It was a bumpy ride. Kim, in 1998, spent 42 days under interrogation by North Korean authorities in what was then known as the Rajin-Sonbong Economic Special Zone. His alleged crimes? Working for the CIA, and attempting to convert local soldiers to Christianity.
Three years after his detention the agreement to set up PUST was approved by both North and South Korean governments, but it took nine years for the school to actually open.
“The building took a lot of time,” says Park. “We had the opening ceremony in September 0f 2009, at that time with over seventeen buildings completed and students came in October of 2010. Since then we have been teaching.”
For almost ten years now, PUST has taught some of North Korea’s top students, while always retaining its Christian identity – or so its management claims. And since opening, the school has attracted all different sorts, from idealistic young Christians proclaiming that “God has told me to be here” to, most famously, the author Suki Kim, whose book “Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite”, dealt with her time teaching at the school.
North Korea’s relationship with Christianity is complicated
The case of his two detained colleagues – and a best-selling book revealing the school’s inner workings – all begs the question to Park: does PUST investigate the backgrounds of the people it invites to teach? A cursory Google search for the name “Suki Kim”, for example, reveals that she had several bylines writing journalistically about North Korea in major publications. Was it not obvious to PUST staff that she would write about her experiences? Park said he wasn’t aware that she was a writer, but that human resources at the University must have been aware of it.
When the news broke, through an excerpt in the New York Times, that Kim would be publishing a book about her experiences at the school, the North Korean side was furious. A meeting was convened by the top management of the school, and Kim Chin-kyung agreed to travel to Boston to meet with Kim to dissuade her from publishing: an attempt which, obviously, failed.
A TED talk by Suki Kim, who taught at PUST for six months and wrote a book about the experience
This incident provoked a change of policy, says Park: it is now mandatory for teachers to sign a document promising not write about their experiences teaching at PUST. Which all begs the question: why was it not mandatory before? Someone with a background as a journalist refusing to sign a document promising not to write about their time suggests, surely, they are planning to write something?
“Yeah,” replies Park. “These days if you don’t sign it you cannot be part of the faculty. I don’t think they would hire you.”
Despite being “understaffed”, by Park’s own admission, PUST might be getting stricter with screening its prospective teachers. One applicant, who preferred to remain anonymous, told NK News that, despite being well qualified and expressing an affinity for the school’s values, they soon received an email saying that PUST was “no longer pursuing your application.” An inquiry following up on why, they say, was met with silence.
Could your humble NK News correspondent, then, teach at the school? Park is unclear on this, simply saying that my application would be rejected, but “not because you are a journalist.”
North Korea’s relationship with Christianity is complicated. It’s a cliché to point out that Pyongyang was once known as the “Jerusalem of the East” for the power of its pull for Western missionaries, but it goes a long way to explaining why Christianity, particularly of the occasionally more evangelical brand, made such a mark on the peninsula.
North Korea has taken pains to improve its traditional image as a godless Stalinist dystopia in recent years. It has sent local priests to international Christian seminars abroad, published its own official translation of the King James Bible, and, most recently, several churches have been opened in Pyongyang: the Bongsu and Chingol churches (both Protestant, non-denominational), and the Catholic Changchung Cathedral (for which there is no Bishop). There is also a Russian Orthodox Church, likely more popular with the capital’s Russian Embassy and occasional delegations than with the locals.
“Many people say the people over there are fake Christians but some of them went there before the liberation of Korea so they are real Christians,” says Park, adding that while he and his colleagues’ worship is usually confined to their 6 am prayers in a small PUST office, he does occasionally venture out to the local Protestant church. The sermon by the pastor is “normally good,” he says – but does occasionally venture into the political.
“One time in 2013 there was a rumor that there would be war between the U.S. and North Korea and the pastor was saying ‘God provided land for each race and each nation for people to do good in their nation but Americans have invaded South Korea’.”
Despite these small attempts to appear Christian-friendly (North Korea also allows Christian NGOs to operate, but they are not allowed to proselytize), the country is still notorious for its lack of religious freedom. A recent headline in Forbes referred to the country’s “War On Christianity”, and the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide argued last year that religious liberty was “largely non-existent” in the DPRK.
The pupils are also aware that PUST is Christian and that their teachers believe in God
CALL TO PRAYER
Evangelical Christians also have strong links to the NGOs which help North Korean defectors in the border regions along the border with China. One of the most famous of these was the Reverend Kim Dong-shik, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents in Yanji, PRC, in 2000 and was later said to have died in a North Korean prison camp.
Christians have also faced the long arm of North Korean law inside the country as well.
A famous example was Kenneth Bae, an Evangelical missionary detained in November of 2012 for allegedly plotting the collapse of the North Korean government. This allegation was not unfounded, either: NK News revealed that Bae had previously given a sermon in which he spoke of a plan to bring down the regime called “Operation Jericho” and had said “I knew that Jesus wanted me to be a ‘channel’ to the North.”
Some have been less ambitious. Jeffrey Fowle, a Christian from Ohio, was detained in April 2014 for the crime of leaving a Bible in a public bar. Both men are now free, but the message both cases sent to the North Koreans was clear: Christian visitors are not to be trusted.
Given the obvious draw that North Korea has to evangelical Christians and the government’s mistrust of them, surely it was only a matter of time that the two issues would converge on PUST’s front door. So why does the school retain the identity and take the risk of attracting more zealous believers?
“Because we are fully supported by Christian organizations,” says Park, saying that they are almost entirely dependent on donations from churches and charities across the world to continue, and that its identity as a place where selfless young believers can teach North Koreans is critical to its mission. PUST’s Christianity is not a secret: its volunteer teachers talk in official material of having been called by God to teach at the school, and the North Korean authorities are well aware of where its loyalties lie.
“As long as we don’t bother their people, it is okay,” he says. “We cannot promote by teaching the Bible, or directly. But what we are doing is just showing Christian love to the students.”
“The students realize that the professors are suffering so much because of a lack of electricity and water, and they know we do not get paid at all; just the apartment and eating at the cafeterias are free, but there are no salaries.”
The pupils are also aware that PUST is Christian and that their teachers believe in God, says Park.
“Sometimes when the rain doesn’t come, they ask us to pray for the rain,” he laughs.
Park’s mission for these students is “science diplomacy” with a Christian bent
So who are these students? Despite frequent reports that the school is reserved for children of the North Korean elites – mainly the sons (the school only began admitting women in 2015) of the DPRK’s top brass – Park says it’s no longer as clear cut as all that, with the ratio of attendees now divided roughly 50/50 between students from Pyongyang and from the rest of the country.
Three students he recently advised on their postgraduate work reflect his change. The first was the son of a high-ranking military official, the second was the son of a professor at Kim Il Sung University – certainly prestigious backgrounds – but the third was the son of a humble worker from outside the capital.
Park’s mission for these students is “science diplomacy” with a Christian bent. His plan for the school is to build “a global university beyond imagination” by 2020, developing partnerships with higher education institutions across the world to conduct research and send his brightest North Koreans abroad.
And in recent years, PUST has increasingly had the freedom to send its students abroad. Several were sent to London’s University of Westminster, as well as to Uppsala University in Sweden and the Zurich University of Applied Science in Switzerland. It has also sought to expand research partnerships overseas: in February it was reported that PUST was seeking help from Texas A&M University for its agricultural work.
Park was asked in 2011 to write a “Vision 2020” plan for the university, he says.
“I said ‘it will be a global university beyond imagination’. What we are trying to do is to make the university globalized.”
SHUT IT DOWN?
Park’s optimism is a world away from the view of Joshua Stanton, a blogger and sanctions advocate who, as the situation of the two Mr. Kims became public, argued on his influential One Free Korea blog (Stanton has worked drafting legislation for the U.S. Congress) that it was time to “shut PUST down now” to avoid what he saw as an inevitability: “a larger hostage crisis”.
Speaking to NK News over email last week, Stanton argues that PUST is a “failed experiment” that now risks becoming a pawn in North Korean efforts to maintain its nuclear and missile program in the face of international sanctions.
“Sometimes when the rain doesn’t come, they ask us to pray for the rain”
Stanton also believes there’s a strong case to be made that PUST’s scientific cooperation with North Korea risks violating international sanctions against the regime concerning dual-use technology being brought into the country – a claim that the university denies.
“U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321, paragraph 11, requires all U.N. member states to immediately suspend scientific and technical cooperation with North Korea pending a review of potential dual uses for proliferation,” Stanton argues. “The Commerce Department needs to assess what controlled technology PUST is exporting, which would almost certainly require licenses.”
“Commerce should suspend any such licenses pending a full review. Treasury could also use Executive Orders 13687 or 13722 to prohibit PUST’s technology transfers to North Korea until Treasury is certain that any transfers (such as technology for strictly medical uses) fit within the general licenses Treasury issued last year.”
Testimony from a PUST student on the university’s Youtube channel
Another area where PUST could run into trouble with international law is its reported training of hackers – reports which surfaced last year in South Korean press and which Park and the university strenuously deny.
“That is completely wrong information,” Park says, claiming that any North Koreans learning about computers would do so at a much younger age: in the first grade of middle school.
The school, Stanton points out, has also not yet called for the release of its workers – as far as he can tell.
“Their silence speaks loudly nonetheless,” he says. “Its message is one of submission to the totalitarians in Pyongyang, even to the point of sacrificing their colleagues to it.”
But Park denies that the two men are hostages, and disputes the accusation that they were detained by North Korea simply because they were Americans at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I don’t think they detained them as hostages just for the purpose of dealing with the USA,” he says, arguing the two Kims – as he refers to them – were simply not well-known enough to be useful bargaining chips for North Korea. Instead, they were simply naive true believers who, it’s been suspected, were detained for NGO work.
“Its message is one of submission to the totalitarians in Pyongyang”
That being said, he admits, North Korea’s criteria for what constitutes a crime is very different to most countries.
In its official responses to the arrests in April and May, PUST distanced itself from the actions of its employees, saying of both that “the detention is related to an investigation into matters that are not connected in any way to PUST”.
“Life on campus and the teaching at PUST is continuing as normal for the Spring semester.”
Park, too, is keen to distance himself and his work from the two men.
But for anyone interested, PUST is hiring. Professors in the life sciences are wanted, as well as instructors in Chinese, English, and administrative assistants.
There’s no pay, of course, and preference is now given to teachers hoping to stay in North Korea for the “long-term”. Applicants must, in addition, work well in a team, be sensitive to cultural differences, and “submit to authority” – something of an understatement.
Featured image: PUST, modified by NK News
Edited by Chad O’Carroll and Kevin Search
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Featured Image: PUST by uritours on 2012-05-21 02:21:28