February 21, 2024

Why North Korea mistrusts but depends on its foreign-educated elite

Pyongyang regards most who study abroad as Manchurian candidates that are fundamentally disloyal to the Kims

During the COVID-19 pandemic, North Korea has grown increasingly isolated as the regime of Kim Jong Un sealed borders and clamped down on the flow of people, information and goods entering and leaving the country. While these recent measures are extreme, they follow a familiar pattern in the DPRK, with periods of international expansion followed by a sharp contraction.  

One area in which this cycle has been particularly noticeable is international education. The number of overseas-educated North Koreans is not very large (there are no exact figures; the most recent data from UNESCO counts 1,153 North Korean tertiary-level students abroad) but historically they have played a crucial role in the country’s development, bringing much-needed expertise from abroad.