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Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’s First International Conference

bridges vol. 31, October 2011 / Norm Neureiter on Science in Diplomacy

By Norman P. Neureiter

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Norman P. Neureiter

An international scientific conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, the DPRK - it seems almost unbelievable but it happened and it was a big success. It took place at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) October 4-8 this year. PUST is the university built with funds donated largely by Korean Christian groups around the world. It is staffed by volunteer teachers from several countries; all instruction is done in English and it is the fulfillment of a dream of one man, President Chin Kyung (James) Kim. Two earlier bridges articles described PUST in detail and reported on the dedication ceremony in September 2009, which I had attended. When an invitation came to present a paper this year at the first PUST International Conference on Science and World Peace (PICoSEP), I leapt at the opportunity to return to Pyongyang and see how this improbable institution is getting along.  

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology held in October an international scientific conference.

Attending the meeting was a remarkable experience. Among the 34 speakers from around the world were: Peter Agre, a Nobel Prize-winner from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health; Lord David Alton, a member of the House of Lords in the British Parliament; David Hilmers, a former NASA astronaut with four shuttle flights on his record and now a practicing physician; Stephen Price, a Welsh doctor who specializes in disaster relief missions (such as the Pakistan and Haiti earthquakes); Malcolm Gillis , the former president and now economics professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas; Randy Giles, the American president of Bell Lab Seoul in South Korea; Bryan Cheung and Brian Chan, two young US high-tech entrepreneurs from Liferay, Inc. of Los Angeles, talking about enterprise portal development and trends in the Internet-based economy; Paul McNamara, an agricultural economist from the University of Illinois; Gianaurelio Cuniberti from the Technical University of Dresden, talking about nano- and bio-materials; R.D. Shelton, president of a small US company specializing in scientometrics; and Stuart Thorson of Syracuse University, who has had a program with Kim Chaek University on digital libraries for several years - although it is currently in suspension after the US denied an export license for the needed computers to go to Korea.  

And that is just some of the speakers. There were also about a dozen technical presentations by North Korean scientists working in various faculties at several different North Korean universities, including the top one, Kim Il Sung University, and its engineering spinoff, Kim Chaek University. It was fascinating to hear a talk by a North Korean math professor on deriving a formula for pricing a multiple-expiration-date stock option. Yes, stock options like the ones that trade in Chicago. Another paper dealt with calculating the pollution dangers at different locations away from a power plant's smokestack emissions; a third was on removing arsenic from waste gas streams, etc.  Both of the last two were by women researchers.   


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} However, some foreigners who wanted to attend did not make it. None of the five foreign journalists who applied to cover the meeting was given a visa; and surprisingly, the day before he was scheduled to leave Sweden for the DPRK, Professor Hans Jornvall, who had been invited and had prepared a lecture on the Nobel Prize system, was told that his visa had been denied and he could not come.   

The formal chairman of the conference was the senior official in the North Korean Committee on Education, Vice Minister Jon Kuk Man. He was also the person who had presented to James Kim the official document from the DPRK designating him operating president of PUST at the dedication ceremony in 2009. His opening remarks included comments about the importance of international cooperation in science education and research, and noted that this conference would promote such cooperation and that North Korea would do its best in S&T in order to contribute to the world's knowledge. He was followed by the two keynote addresses: Peter Agre presented a version of his Nobel speech on the discovery of aquaporins and Lord Alton spoke at length on the history of scientific discovery and progress (click here for a transcript of his speech).   

There are presently 200 undergraduate students and 46 graduate students enrolled at PUST. There are no women. They were selected by the DPRK Government and the names given to PUST, with no independent admission process. Factors limiting the number of students are the number of  PUST professors, who must find their own  support beyond meals and housing (no salary), and the present policy of South Korea to prohibit travel to the DPRK, in addition to the almost complete cutoff of assistance -humanitarian and otherwise - because of the North's alleged intransigence on the nuclear issue.

Plan of PUST Campus.

All the students were present for the opening and closing ceremonies, but the parallel technical sessions were for graduate students and visitors only. The four topics of those concurrent sessions were Information Technology, Life Sciences, Management, and Environment & Collaboration. Sandwiched between lunch one day and the parallel sessions was a special address, including time for questions for all the students, by former US astronaut David Hilmers about his four shuttle flights to the International Space Station. In my own speech, titled "International S&T Cooperation: Path to a More Peaceful World," I described many of the science diplomacy activities that I have been involved in since the early 1960s.     

Since questions were encouraged, there were chances to talk with the students in the sessions and, although we ate our meals an hour apart from the students with different menus, it was in the same cafeteria and it was possible to join them for a conversation.  They were obviously intelligent, albeit with differing levels of English and, as expected, were cautious about answering personal questions.     

We had two banquets at a hotel in downtown Pyongyang - one the night we arrived and a farewell on the last day. Students were not included, but the designated DPRK president of PUST, the vice minister, and the two DPRK-designated vice presidents of PUST were also there. It was very congenial, with music from a small women's group and much singing by participants going spontaneously to the microphone for solos. It is clear that the Koreans love to sing; and our Welsh tenor (the medical doctor) was a huge hit.  

Part of our group went one evening to the famous Arirang performance in the huge covered stadium where several thousand young people fill the floor of the arena with dances and acrobatics, while several thousand more young people flip cards in precise unison in the stands on the opposite side of the arena from the audience, forming words and images related to the music echoing through the stadium. It is a true tour-de-force. I did not go this time since I had seen it two years ago but, interestingly, those who did go said that the text and themes of the cards were much less aggressive and more peaceful in tone and message than they had been earlier. Regardless of the message, it is a magnificent performance for which the young participants (and some nearly professional performers) train for a very long time. Its name "Arirang" is a very sentimental love song of parting that everyone knows and that was sung at each of our banquets.     

The final day was for sightseeing and touring. It included the statues and monuments to Kim Il Sung, the founder of the DPRK and his son, the present Great Leader Kim Jong Il.  We drove through the wonderfully situated campus of Kim Il Sung University and visited the library including the digital library room equipped with numerous HP computers.  However, we saw no students, which seemed to confirm what we had been told earlier that DPRK universities (except for PUST) have been closed and students assigned to work in preparing the country for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, which occurs on April 15, 2012. Compared with two years before, Pyongyang looked much busier with numerous active construction sites, many more people in the very clean streets, and more auto traffic. The pretty young girls directing traffic were busier than they used to be.    

A high point of the tour was a drive well outside the city limits to the Taedonggang Combined Fruit Farm, and a breathtaking view over 2400 acres of apple trees. As we stood there amazed at the neat rows of trees seemingly stretching to the horizon, a car raced up and a pretty young woman in a snappy light-blue uniform jumped out and spent nearly an hour answering our questions. None of the trees was more than four years old, she said; this year's crop had been mostly picked except for a small area that I had noticed on the way in. She said they had collected trees from all over the world and had 108 varieties planted there. They use biological methods of pest control, she said, but without details. Suddenly, a bucket of fresh apples appeared (supposedly Fujis) and we each took one. They were excellent, with no scabs, no worms, not quite ripe, but nonetheless, very juicy. In the US today it takes up to ten sprayings to get high quality apples. The orchard is irrigated with a system purchased in Italy. It is fertilized with pig manure generated by pigs kept by the several hundred families who live and work on the farm.
PUST_logo_small.jpg All in all it was an excellent trip. The mood at PUST seemed very upbeat and positive. The atmosphere at our meals, at our banquets, in the sessions was always very congenial, relaxed, and informative. And there was an overall sense of satisfaction with this year's conference and already talk of having another conference next year - drawing on this year's experience. 

Those who had a chance to talk with students were impressed by their intelligence and their willingness in the meetings to ask good questions. More English instruction, especially for undergrads, is necessary. And more teachers are needed in English as well as in the scientific fields. They will accept visiting professors for as short a time as six to eight weeks, giving short courses, but would prefer at least a semester. Any qualified person who might be interested in learning more about the opportunities should write to: Norma.Nichols(at)gmail.com. 

A continued flow of funds from PUST supporters abroad is also essential. Financial contributions to PUST can be made through the yustpost foundation (https://yustpust.org); or one can write directly to the Chancellor of PUST, Dr. Chan-mo Park at: parkcm.pust(at)gmail.com. Dr. Park was a major factor in the planning and execution of this year's conference. In retirement from a career of teaching and research, he has now dedicated his formidable skills in science education and research management to the success of this unique and fascinating institution.


The author, Norman Neureiter, has been a senior advisor to the  AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD)  since July 2009.  

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