A Mission to Educate the Elite

Science Magazine
Vol. 316. no. 5822, p. 183
DOI: 10.1126/science.316.5822.183
Richard Stone
4/13/2007

In a dramatic new sign that North Korea is emerging from isolation, the country’s first international university has announced plans to open its doors in Pyongyang this fall.

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) will train select North Korean graduate students in a handful of hard-science disciplines, including computer science and engineering. In addition, founders said last week, the campus will anchor a Silicon Valley-like “industrial cluster” intended to generate jobs and revenue.

One of PUST’s central missions is to train future North Korean elite. Another is evangelism. “While the skills to be taught are technical in nature, the spirit underlying this historic venture is unabashedly Christian,” its founding president, Chin Kyung Kim, notes on the university’s Web site (www.pust.net).

The nascent university is getting a warm reception from scientists involved in efforts to engage the Hermit Kingdom. “PUST is a great experiment for North-South relations,” says Dae-Hyun Chung, a physicist who retired from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and now works with Roots of Peace, a California nonprofit that aims to remove landmines from Korea’s demilitarized zone. To Chung, a Christian university is fitting: A century ago, Christianity was so vibrant in northern Korea, he says, that missionaries called Pyongyang “the Jerusalem of the East.”

The idea for PUST came in a surprise overture from North Korea in 2000, a few months after a landmark North-South summit. A decade earlier, Kim had established China’s first foreign university: Yanbian University of Science and Technology, in Yanji, the capital of an autonomous Korean enclave in China’s Jilin Province, just over the border from North Korea. In March 2001, the North Korean government authorized Kim and his backer, the nonprofit Northeast Asia Foundation for Education and Culture (NAFEC), headquartered in Seoul, to establish PUST in southern Pyongyang. It also granted NAFEC the right to appoint Kim as PUST president and hire faculty of any nationality, as well as a contract to use the land for 50 years.

NAFEC broke ground in June 2002 on a 1-million-square-meter plot that had belonged to the People’s Army in Pyongyang’s Nak Lak district, on the bank of the Taedong River. Construction began in earnest in April 2004. That summer, workers–a few of the 800 young soldiers on loan to the project–unearthed part of a bell tower belonging to a 19th century church dedicated to Robert Jermain Thomas, a Welsh Protestant missionary killed aboard his ship on the Taedong in 1866.

NAFEC’s fundraising faltered, however, and construction halted in fall 2004. The group intensified its Monday evening prayers and broadened its money hunt, getting critical assistance from a U.S. ally: the former president of Rice University, Malcolm Gillis, a well-connected friend of the elder George Bush and one of three co-chairs of a committee overseeing PUST’s establishment. “He made a huge difference,” says Chan-Mo Park, president of Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), another co-chair. South Korea’s unification ministry also quietly handed PUST a $1 million grant–more than it has awarded to any other North-South science cooperation project. This helped the school complete its initial $20 million construction push.

At the outset, PUST will offer master’s and Ph.D. programs in areas including computing, electronics, and agricultural engineering, as well as an MBA program. North Korea’s education ministry will propose qualified students, from which PUST will handpick the inaugural class of 150. It is now seeking 45 faculty members. Gillis and other supporters are continuing to stump for a targeted $150 million endowment to cover PUST operations, which in the first year will cost $4 million. Undergraduate programs will be added later, officials say. PUST, at full strength, aims to have 250 faculty members, 600 grad students, and 2000 undergrads.

PUST hopes to establish research links and exchanges with North Korea’s top institutions and with universities abroad. “It is a very positive sign,” says Stuart Thorson, a political scientist at Syracuse University in New York who leads a computer science collaboration between Syracuse and Kimchaek University of Technology in Pyongyang. “Key to success will be achieving on-the-ground involvement of international faculty in PUST’s teaching and research.”

Some observers remain cautious, suggesting that the North Korean military could use the project to acquire weapons technology or might simply commandeer the campus after completion. A more probable risk is that trouble in the ongoing nuclear talks could cause delays. At the moment, however, signs are auspicious. Park, who plans to teach at PUST after his 4-year POSTECH term ends in August, visited Pyongyang last month as part of a PUST delegation. “The atmosphere was friendly,” he says. “The tension was gone.” The Monday prayer group continues, just in case.

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