North Korea May Soon Step Out of the Cold With a New English-language International University

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Aug 8 18:46:41 UTC 2007

   The Chronicle of Higher Education

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

North Korea May Soon Step Out of the Cold With a New International University


North Korea seems set to take a giant leap out of the intellectual
cold with the development of an English-language university, in which
academics from around the world will teach the best of the country's
graduate students.

Construction of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is
nearing completion on a 247-acre plot of land leased by the People's
Army in the North's capital. The army has loaned 800 soldiers to build
the campus, which is largely financed by a network of Christian
evangelicals and other supporters, who are aiming to raise
$150-million to cover the university's costs. The institution has
reportedly raised its initial operating expenses of $20 million.

Given the scale of foreign involvement and the money poured into the
new campus so far, those involved say they are confident it will open
its first research laboratories this fall and its doors to students
next spring. But the legendary unpredictability of North Korean leader
Kim Jong-il could still throw a wrench in the university's works.

Mr. Kim is believed to have personally ordered the site cleared for
use and granted the university the right to hire staff from anywhere
in the world. The institution is eventually expected to have 2,600
undergraduate and graduate students and help train a new generation of
elite business executives and technicians.

The project's leaders in South Korea and the United States are playing
down its potential impact for fear of spooking the North's jittery
authorities, but agree that the venture could represent a seismic
shift in the reclusive state's largely frozen relations with the rest
of the planet.

"It will be the country's first international university," says Park
Chan-Mo, the university's co-chair and a prominent scientist in Seoul,
South Korea. "The North has good universities, but they don't
communicate with the rest of the world. This will let everyone know
that the capacity of their scientists is very high."

Despite crumbling educational facilities, the city of Pyongyang's
standards of computer science, software, and applied mathematics are
world-class, say experts, and its youth is bursting with pent-up
energy to do business. The university is expected to germinate
spin-off companies and eventually a Silicon Valley-style industrial

With a faculty of 45, the university will offer a master's in business
administration as well as courses on information technology and
agriculture. The initial cohort of about 150 students will be
recruited from the country's top research institutions, including the
prestigious Kim Il Sung University.

Money and Prayer

The project is being nurtured into life by a combination of political
savvy, fund-raising, and prayer. The key American organizer is S.
Malcolm Gillis, a former president of Rice University, in Texas, and a
reputed friend of former President George H.W. Bush. Mr. Gillis has
helped raise millions of dollars among U.S.-based Koreans.

"There are 200,000 Koreans in the Los Angeles area alone, and a lot of
churches," said Mr. Gillis.

Science magazine reported recently that the university's network of
Christian supporters "intensified its Monday evening prayers" after
the project was almost killed by lack of financing in 2004. The South
Korean government has since donated $1-million, and the university has
the backing of the nonprofit Christian group the Northeast Asia
Foundation for Education and Culture.

One of the key issues is whether staff and students will be allowed to
freely access the Internet, whose content could stir up instability in
the closed regime.

"We're proceeding on the basis that our students are going to be able
to take part in the electronic revolution," said Mr. Gillis. "You have
to remember that Pyongyang has never had a private university, so some
resistance is inevitable."

The facility could also face potential opposition from hard-liners in
the administration of President George W. Bush, who may balk at
allowing the transfer of advanced technology to the university's
laboratories. Strict U.S. Export Administration Regulations forbid the
sale of technology that could be used to make weapons in so-called
"rogue regimes," such as North Korea.

Meanwhile, Mr. Park and his colleagues face an uphill struggle
convincing new lecturers to invest their future in a country with few
of the traditional perks of academic life.

"The monetary compensation will be much less than in other countries,
but our teachers are not coming to North Korea for money," he said.
"They are coming to help the country and spread their Christian love."

Copyright (c) 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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