A Sudden Trip to Pyongyang

bridges vol. 23, October 2009 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Foreign Policy

By Norman P. Neureiter

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neureiter_norman_cd_042408_small.jpgI couldn't believe it when the first invitation arrived almost a year ago.  It was from the president of the National Research Foundation of South Korea, inviting me to attend the dedication ceremony of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) in February in Pyongyang - the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).  As I learned more about PUST, the story became even more unbelievable.  It is the story of one man with a vision and a large number of dedicated supporters - primarily Koreans living in South Korea, China, and the United States.  The man is Kim Chin-Kyung, or  James Kim, to use his American name. He is founder and president of Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST) in Yanji, China.  Yanji is the capital city of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture - so named because of the large number of ethnic Koreans living in that prefecture - part of Jilin Province in northeastern China, which shares a 300-mile border with the DPRK.  

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YUST, I was told, is the only private university in China. It presently has about 1800 students and 200 faculty members from 12 different countries.  The vision and persistence of President Kim in getting permission to found this institution, and then to raise the money and build it, is a story in itself - but a separate one, as is the personal history of this fascinating individual.  He has an American passport, having immigrated to Florida from South Korea, but sold his successful business there to help the Korean population of Yanbian Prefecture.  He now lives mostly in China with free access to North Korea and has devoted his life to education in both countries.  Early in his stay in China, he took an interest in what was happening over the border in North Korea, and began bringing clothes and food to orphanages there.  At one point he was arrested, accused of being a spy, imprisoned, and sentenced to death.  He has said that he then wrote a will offering to donate his body and organs to the Korean people for medical research, and that the gesture so moved the leadership that he was freed.  He was indeed freed and maintained his connections with North Korea.  And remarkably, in 2001, people at the DPRK Ministry of Education had become so interested in YUST that they asked him to try to replicate it in Pyongyang.  The institution would be called PUST.  Now, eight years later, the dedication of PUST was scheduled and I had an invitation to the ceremony.  I was determined to go.    

But the ceremony did not happen in February.  Such events are often at the mercy of the political environment and it was postponed, reportedly six times:  In June, it was reset for August, but as the date got closer it was postponed, then quickly rescheduled for September.  My application was still valid and I had not changed my mind.  I was going.  All arrangements were made through the staff at YUST in Yanji, China, where e-mail connections are fortunately very good.  Original plans called for as many as 250 attendees, about 120 from South Korea, perhaps 100 from the US, and the rest from China and other countries. 

For Americans living in the US and attending this event, there were two ways to get to Pyongyang: either fly to Seoul and get on a Koryo Airlines (North Korean) charter plane to Shenyang, China, where the next contingent would be picked up and then flown on to Pyongyang; or fly via Beijing to Shenyang and pick up the charter there.   Having some appointments at Tsinghua University in Beijing after the DPRK visit, I chose to go via Beijing to Shenyang, spend the night there, and then meet the rest of the delegation in the morning.  That first night after I'd gone to bed, there came a knock on the door.  An American university professor of agricultural sciences asked if he could share the room - it seemed that the hosts had slightly under-reserved for our group.  In any case, there were two beds in the room, he did not snore, he knew the YUST people well, and he turned out to be a very helpful and agreeable colleague.  However, some Americans who had planned to go in August could not change their plans so quickly and had dropped out, including the one non-Korean founding-committee chair, Professor Malcolm Gillis of Rice University in Houston, Texas, and another Korean-American cardiologist named Choi, also from Houston.  Besides President Kim, the third founding-committee chair (and the one who had sent me the original invitation) is Chan-mo Park, another Korean-American, who has been promoting science cooperation with North Korea for some time.

Then came the issue of the visa.  Americans cannot get visas for the DPRK in New York, but the DPRK mission in New York must approve all Americans applying for a visa at another location.  And one does not learn from New York whether the application is approved, nor does approval come early in the process.  The YUST people had assured me that I had been initially approved by Pyongyang and then reconfirmed by New York, but when I arrived in Shenyang, YUST staffers were still at the DPRK consulate getting the visas.  Since the US does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK, one cannot get the visa in a passport; instead, one receives a card that looks like a visa and is the official entry document.  I got mine that evening and felt very good - two of the German instructors from YUST didn't obtain theirs until an hour before the bus left for the airport the following morning.  Another note of interest is that South Koreans are not handled by the Foreign Ministry but by a ministry dealing with internal matters, because South Korea is not seen as a foreign country. 

A journalist from Science magazine, who had also received an invitation, was denied a visa on the grounds that no Western media would be permitted to attend.  That edict also affected a writer for Fortune, and in the end both he and the Science journalist wrote articles based on interviews before and after the dedication, which give many more details about the history and plans for PUST.  [See Science, vol. 325, pp. 1610-11, and "The Capitalist who loves North Korea," Fortune Magazine, September 15, 2009.]  There was also a great crisis with the South Korean Government, which decided that sending people to the dedication would look like a friendly gesture to the North.  They were in no mood at the time for signs of friendship, so they prohibited all South Koreans from going.  Only an hour's pleading by President Kim with the South Korean Unification Minister finally obtained permission for 20 South Koreans to make the trip.    

The one-hour charter flight was in a Russian-built Ilyushin 62 aircraft, nicely appointed inside with attractive stewardesses serving beverages.  Pyongyang airport is not busy.  We taxied for a very long time after landing, because apparently the terminal planned to be located near the new runway has not yet been built.  The Koryo Airlines fleet of Russian aircraft included a number of older turboprop planes.  Immigration procedures were simple and courteous - certainly not like the old Soviet Union - and prompt.  But I had forgotten the instruction not to bring my cell phone, so I was asked to check it at the airport and only remembered it on departing thanks to one of the airport staff.  So we boarded our assigned buses and headed for the hotel -  a total of probably 120 people. 

We stayed at the 47-story Yanggakdo International Hotel with the rotating top (that did not rotate while we were there).  A casino was said to be in the basement for foreigners, though I never managed to get there.  One of our group, a garrulous Englishman, had a very nice suit made for himself in one day at the hotel for €98.  He also did business in North Korea and was quite upbeat about the opportunities, claiming that his foreign clients now owned part of a producing gold mine there.  Shops in the hotel and the local products stores where foreigners go quote prices in Euros and also accept dollars and Chinese renminbi;  I never saw any Korean currency.  Nor did there seem to be any limitations on taking pictures.    

Pyongyang is an attractive city, quite different from what I expected from general Western descriptions of North Korea.  The Taedong River, where some people fish, winds peacefully through the city crossed by a number of steel bridges.  There were almost no cars, but very determined young girls in white uniforms were energetically directing traffic.  We had no chance to walk around the streets, but it appeared from our buses that there were very few people on the streets during the day, although lines of people waited for buses during the evening rush hour.  The subway system was deep and elaborately decorated, but there was no time to take a ride.  Our program was very full, and we had been told by our YUST organizers that we had to stay together at all times and not go wandering off on our own.  They were quite concerned that the group should stay together:  There were at least four English-speaking Korean guides on each bus that drove us around the city, all of whom seemed to have studied at the University of Foreign Languages and spoke very acceptable English.  These guides had learned some English slang expressions and loved injecting them into their conversation. They also seemed very much at ease and joined us for meals.  Only one political conversation emerged, when a guide asked me why the all-powerful United States, after defeating the whole world, had then turned around and invaded poor North Korea.  When I said I understood that the North had invaded the South, he said that simply was not true.  Later I found and bought a small policy wonk-like study that drew on Western books and references to prove that the US had indeed started the Korean war.

But of course the main event for us was not sightseeing, but the PUST dedication.  So the next morning we boarded our buses and headed toward the 250-acre PUST site, located south of the main part of the city.  A deputy minister of education presented the official letter of appointment to President Kim, designating him the official operating president of PUST.  Kim had tears in his eyes, and his voice broke as he accepted the document in a red leather folder with his picture attached.  It was clear that this was the official word from the top level of the DPRK government that PUST is a going concern and ready to get down to business.  It was an emotional moment for all of the participants.

I personally think that the accomplishments to date are quite incredible.  With an investment so far of some $32 million - nearly all from Koreans living around the world - 14 of the 15 planned buildings have been completed and look quite modern and of very acceptable quality, including dormitories for students and faculty apartments. Instruction will be in English, and remedial English will be offered for students who cannot score 550 on the TOEFL test.  We saw two excellent computer rooms and attractive classrooms.  The campus is modeled after YUST in China. As is true there, all the buildings are connected by covered walkways to protect students from the severe winter weather as they go between classes. 

PUST wants to recruit volunteers as university staff people, as well as instructors and professors.  Volunteers will receive room and board, but no salary.  It could be a very interesting experience for someone at the right stage in his or her life. I was told after we left that the DPRK Ministry of Education wants to begin the first undergraduate classes starting in March 2010.  This was a surprise to the YUST people, who expected to start with graduate classes because of their concern about the English competence of new undergraduates.

On one of our tours, we also visited the digital library of Kim Chaek University (considered the MIT of North Korea).  The lecture by the director was not translated into English (which limited our understanding), but he then showed us the computer room.  In answer to a question, we were told that there is no connectivity to the Internet or to general e-mail but there is an Intranet system, which was not explained further.  I was told that if a student wants something from the Internet it can be ordered from a central location and would be sent to the requester.

Syracuse University and Kim Chaek University have a cooperative program in the information area; however, our host was apparently not involved in that activity.  While the contacts with Syracuse continue, they are moving very slowly because the US has denied export of the computers being supplied to Kim Chaek that would parallel the facilities at Syracuse and enable the envisioned cooperation.  To my knowledge, this Kim Chaek-Syracuse project is the only ongoing cooperative science-related activity between the countries at this time.  On the other hand, a number of US and Western European institutions have provided humanitarian and development assistance, and many of their people have been routinely visiting the DPRK for many years with programs that include both technical and medical aspects.  The same is true for a number of Korean-Americans - one lady on the trip said she is responsible for some 7,000 acres on four different farms near Pyongyang that provide food for 30,000 people.  At the dinner table one night, she produced a huge Asian pear and divided it among all of us - a product she said came from one of her farms.  But she only visits the DPRK a few weeks at a time and does not live there.  

The two core philosophies of the DPRK leadership are juche (self-reliance) and songun (military first) and these are particularly emphasized in the spectacular evening performance called Arirang, which is rehearsed for months and then performed for two or three months each year by thousands of high school students from the Pyongyang area.  Imagine an estimated 20,000 young people on one side of the huge stadium doing a card-flipping routine in perfect unison and precision for two hours, forming pictures and slogans, while at the same time thousands more perform in the arena with a dazzling, multicolored, constantly changing array of dance and acrobatic formations accompanied by music.  In one presentation, performers fly through the air 100 feet or more above the floor and drop into nets below.  It is truly an incredible spectacle.  I recall that when Secretary of State Albright came back from her visit to the DPRK, just at the end of the Clinton Administration, she marveled at the discipline and precision of the thousands of young people in a similar performance.  And it is not just for tourists.  A large crowd of Koreans was in attendance but they sat separately from our group.  By coincidence, we also ran into Walter Keats who was leading a group of American tourists.  His Asia Pacific Travel organization in Chicago has an exclusive license to run tours to the DPRK at two times in the year when it is possible to see events such as Arirang. 

It is interesting to go on Google Earth and look at Pyongyang.  Here one gets a very clear picture of the city with the main buildings and monuments clearly marked and the Taedong River winding through the city with the small island where our hotel was located.  And on the south side of the City the PUST location is clearly labeled.  One can also see where the captured US Navy spy ship Pueblo is anchored on the river as a museum.  I had wanted to visit it, but there was no time. 

One reason I wanted to visit Pyongyang is that, for several years, we at AAAS have tried unsuccessfully to develop a cooperative science activity with the DPRK.  We have made proposals in agriculture, in avian flu (the DPRK is a flyway for migrating birds from Siberia), and in ecological studies, but these have not been accepted.  My visit to PUST did not provide any opportunity to advance these proposals.  However, I certainly know more about the country than I did before and believe there are areas where we could cooperate to our mutual benefit.  Perhaps this formal dedication of PUST indicates a greater willingness on the part of the DPRK to cooperate with institutions outside of the DPRK.  On the other hand, perhaps it does not - any such cooperation may ultimately have to wait until resolution of the serious political issues which continue to divide us.  In any case we remain interested in such cooperation, whenever the opportunity may arise. 

I also want to announce to bridges readers that I am stepping down from my present position at AAAS.  On October 12, Dr. Gerald Epstein, most recently with CSIS, officially replaced me as the director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP).   However, I will continue to work at AAAS with the title of senior advisor, dividing my time between CSTSP and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD) which reports to Dr. Vaughan Turekian, the AAAS chief international officer.  I look forward to staying in touch with all of you in that new capacity.  


The author, Norman Neureiter, has been the director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy since May 2004.