The first private university in North Korea, the decades-long dream of an American businessman from Korea, has been completed and will enroll its first students this spring, demonstrating the potential to build a science-based relationship with a nation often perceived as isolated.
James (Chin Kyung) Kim, the founder and president of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, said the institution is the first international university of its kind in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The university, built entirely with money and support from outside North Korea, hopes to offer Korean students the education, training and experience they would gain if attending colleges outside of that country.
The goal is to train a new generation of technical and business leaders to help guide the nation’s economic growth as it becomes more of a part of the world economy.
At a presentation given at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., Kim said classes are to begin in late spring with 60 graduate students and 150 undergraduates. Eventually, the university aims to have 2000 undergraduates, 600 graduate students and 250 faculty members.
“It is hard to believe that it is completed,” Kim said before the gathering. “It is a dream come true.”
Most construction of the 240-acre campus of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) was completed early in 2009 and the institution formally dedicated, with Kim installed as president, on 16 September at ceremonies attended by some 200 dignitaries from around the world.
Kim said he and his backers, including the nonprofit Northeast Asia Foundation for Education and Culture, based in South Korea, see the institution as a bridge between North and South and a step toward reconciliation. Education is the key to understanding, he said. “Without education, you cannot change,” he said. “Without education, you cannot develop.”
PUST is modeled after a similar university he founded in Northeast China, Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST), which opened in 1992. That international university, which serves students from 13 countries, has produced 2300 graduates and is considered one of the best in China, he said. YUST is in a border area of China and Korea where almost half the population is Korean.
Kim, an evangelical Christian, said he was motivated to establish these secular universities in closed, Communist countries “for God’s glory” and to help bridge the gap between East and West through education and commerce. A native Korean born in South Korea who came to the United States, became a citizen, and made his fortune with several successful businesses in Florida, Kim decided to become an educator and work to improve relations between China and Korea as well as in his native divided homeland.
Success in dealing with countries known for their isolation comes from years of travel within them, making contacts and not getting involved in their politics. Kim said he confines his activities to education and respects the people of these countries and their laws. In China, the first 10 years were difficult but he gained respect for his work as YUST grew in prestige.
“The Chinese government has been a nice partner,” he said. “They have not hindered us in any way.”
The early days in North Korea also were not easy. In 1998, he was arrested as a suspected spy and spent more than a month in prison. But Kim persisted and in 2001, the PUST project started when the North Korean government approached him about his idea and he gained the endorsement of the nation’s leader, Kim Jung-Il.
David Kim (not related to James) is a former American corporate executive who is assisting in the Pyongyang project. He said the North Korean change of heart appeared to stem from the fall of the Soviet Union, which left no place for them to send their students abroad. “They were aware of YUST in China and said, ‘Let’s bring that kind of school into North Korea,’” he said.
With donations from groups and individuals in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere, PUST will provide a free education to its students, including room, board, books, James Kim said. The university will focus on technical and business studies; the official language is English and students are expected to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the language to be accepted. All graduate classes will be taught only in English, requiring students to be proficient, and some undergraduates, who can’t declare majors until their third year, could spend more than half their time on English lessons.
Students will be nominated by the North Korean education ministry, but the university will select those who will attend and has sole control over the curriculum, Kim said. Faculty has been recruited worldwide for both permanent and short-term positions, and there has been considerable interest from South Korean and American academics and researchers.
The three guiding principles of the school are practicality, creativity, and global-mindedness, Kim said. Initial studies are to emphasize information and communication technology; management and business administration; and agriculture, food, and life sciences. Later, the university expects to add architecture, engineering and construction technology, and public health and environmental sciences.
Kim said he hopes to eventually have an industrial park surround the campus that draws international corporations to use and help train the students, and to help launch joint-venture businesses.
The campus is also starting off with open Internet access and overseas video-conferencing ability, using a service provided by a German company through fiber optics to foreign embassies and businesses. The Internet is available in all campus buildings and David Kim said the hope is that it remains free and unfettered. “If the government tries to interfere, then we just become one of their other schools and not a truly international university,” he said. “The idea is to have students exposed to information as if they were overseas.”
Norman P. Neureiter, a veteran scientist-diplomat and senior adviser to the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, moderated the 2 February presentation; he said openness is essential to the founder’s vision. “The normal image we have of North Korea is so negative,” he said. “This is really extraordinary.”
Neureiter, who attended the PUST dedication in September, said he was surprised and impressed by what he saw. He added: “It’s a remarkable development from remarkable people.”
Learn more about Pyongyang University for Science and Technology.
Learn more  about the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy.