This has been a tough year for North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Sci- ence and Technology (PUST). The university, founded by a Korean- American and one of the isolated nation’s top schools, was sucked into
a political maelstrom this spring when
the government arrested two Korean-Americans affiliated with the university.
And now it’s facing a potentially devastating blow: As Science
went to press, the U.S.
Department of State
was preparing to impose a ban on travel by
any U.S. passport holder
to North Korea, effective next month. PUST
President Yu-Taik Chon
and some 40 PUST faculty and lecturers are
Department of State
guidance notes that it
is “establishing a process” for U.S. citizens
to apply for a limited
validity passport and
“special validation” to
travel to North Korea
for “certain purposes,”
including humanitarian work. In the meantime, it urges all U.S. citizens to depart North
Korea and cancel any imminent travel.
The ban could leave PUS T administrators
scrambling to find replacement faculty for
the upcoming fall term. And it would com-
pound earlier woes. On 22 April, authori-
ties detained Sang-duk “Tony” Kim, who
had spent several weeks teaching account-
ing at PUST, over “criminal acts of hostility
aimed to overturn” the North Korean gov-
ernment. Barely 2 weeks later, Hak-song
Kim, who managed an experimental farm
for PUST, was arrested; he was accused of
unspecified “hostile acts.” A U.S. State De-
partment envoy who visited the hostages
last month, and a third Korean-American
detainee not connected with PUST, found
them to be in good health. According to
sources, the PUST-affiliated detainees told
the official that they are being held in
isolation, individually, in a hotel and that
their main daily activity is writing confes-
sions to their alleged crimes. (The State
Department notes that the detainees are
exempted from the travel prohibition.)
PUST officials have stressed that neither
of the detainees has yet been charged with
a crime and that the allegations are un-
related to their work at the university, lo-
cated on the southern edge of Pyongyang.
Still, the back-to-back
arrests have cast an
light on PUST. And the
could grow more com-
plicated as the United
States and other coun-
tries mull additional
sanctions on North
Korea over its test of
ballistic missile earlier
Since PUST took in
its first 50 students in
2010, the student body
has steadily grown;
enrollment now stands
at 450 undergraduates
and 90 graduate students. And PUST plans to open a medical
school, now under construction, at the end
of this year.
Though many observers have praised
the university as a bold experiment in
academic diplomacy, it has its detractors.
Critics have asserted, for instance, that
the university’s computer science courses
train future North Korean hackers and
cyberwarriors. PUST Chancellor Chan-Mo
Park, 82, a computer scientist and former
president of South Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology, rejects that
charge. A South Korea–born U.S. citizen
and, like most of the rest of PUST’s foreign
faculty, a devout Christian, Park sat down
with Science to discuss recent developments. This interview has been edited for
brevity and clarity.
NEWS | IN DEPTH
Travel ban would slam
university in North Korea
Pyongyang University chancellor speaks out on ban’s
consequences and on university-affiliated detainees
Chancellor Chan-Mo Park says a travel ban
would damage Pyongyang University.
By Richard Stone
Q: If U.S. citizens are barred from travel
to North Korea to teach at PUST, how
would that affect your university?
A: We would have to find faculty from
other countries. North Korean professors
could teach some courses, but only a few of
them teach in English, and we have been
advocating that all PUST courses must be
taught in English. So this would definitely
damage the current program. It’s really
discouraging to me.
Q: What efforts has PUST undertaken on
the behalf of Tony Kim and Hak-song Kim?
A: Since their arrests were not related to
their work with PUST, professors and staff
members could not do anything—except
Q: Has their detainment affected perceptions of the university outside North Korea?
A: Many people, especially our families and
supporters, were very surprised and worried
about the security of U.S. citizens at PUST.
Nevertheless, it is my understanding that
most of the summer school teachers [from
the United States] are now on campus.
Q: Have sanctions imposed on North Korea
A: Due to [United Nations] sanctions, since
early last year it became hard to send money
to China to buy research equipment and
materials [for PUST]. Sanctions imposed by
South Korea prohibit South Korean nationals from visiting North Korea, so scholars
from the south cannot come to PUST to
teach. And some countries—for example,
Germany and Italy—did not give visas to
PUST students who were admitted to graduate school at universities such as Göttingen,
Sannio, and Brescia.
Q: What assurances can you give that PUST
graduates do not end up working for
cyberterrorism units or in other branches of
the North Korean military?
A: I can assure you that PUST does not help
train hackers and “cyberwarriors” at all.
Recently, Thae Yong-ho, a former councilor
in North Korea’s embassy in the U.K. who
defected to South Korea, told reporters at
South Korea’s National Assembly that he
did not think PUST was teaching hacking.
He added that in North Korea, they teach
hacking to selected middle school students
who show talent with computers. Most of
our graduates go into the academic sector
as instructors or researchers. Some go on
for graduate study in foreign universities
or get jobs in North Korean companies in
foreign countries like China and Malaysia.
Misunderstanding and groundless accusations hurt the progress of PUST. j