At a time when North Korea is flexing its military muscles and clamping down on anything that could threaten the rule of leader Kim Jong-un – including religion – the only private university in the country is run by evangelical Christians, explains the New York Times.
Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) has a volunteer staff consisting of 90 foreign volunteers from a dozen or so countries, many of whom are evangelical Christians, and offers a curriculum that includes subjects once considered taboo in North Korea, such as capitalism. It was founded in 1976 by a South Korea-born American and still receives a lot of support from the US.
According to the New York Times it has been able to thrive in an otherwise closed and atheistic country because it “provides children of the North Korean elite with an education they cannot get elsewhere – computer science, agriculture, international finance and management, all conducted in English by an international faculty”.
Critics of the university suggest that it has made compromises to a regime that is among the worst offenders of human rights, including freedom of religion. North Korea was once again top of the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.
The university has also given the government leverage in dealing with foreign powers like the US. The four US citizens currently detained in North Korea, two of whom were arrested in the last two months, are effectively bargaining chips in the high-stakes conflict between Pyongyang and Washington, says the New York Times: “As Mr. Kim pursues a destabilizing nuclear weapons program and the Trump administration warns that the time for ‘strategic patience’ is over, the school gives the regime access to a rare commodity in their country: American citizens.”
On 22 April Tony Kim, a Korean-American who had been teaching accounting at the university for a month, was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport as he was trying to leave the country.
Two weeks later, on 6 May, another American citizen, Kim Hak Song, was arrested “on a charge of hostile acts” against the country, a charge the New York Times points out is “often used against people accused of spying or proselytizing”. Kim Hak Song had been working with PUST’s experimental farm, doing agricultural development work.
In both cases the university’s chancellor and co-founder, Chan-Mo Park, said the university had been told their arrests had nothing to do with their work for PUST but were related to other activities away from the university. Kim Hak Song visited for a month at a time from China, where he worked as a missionary for a church in Los Angeles, while Tony Kim frequently visited the northeast, where he was involved with humanitarian work.
Previously, Kim Dong Chul, a 62-year-old Korean-American missionary, was detained in 2015, while Otto Warmbier, 22, arrested in 2016, was given 15 years’ hard labour following his “confession” that he’d stolen a piece of political propaganda at the request of his church.
Meanwhile, Korean-Canadian pastor Hyeun-soo Lim was given a life sentence in 2015 for various charges, including trying to overthrow the government. Like Tony Kim, Lim was involved in humanitarian work with orphanages.