Development & Education

At this North Korean university, the West may be distrusted — but it's also studied

Exercise Screen shot 1.png

Credit:

BBC

Students exercise at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

In North Korea, one of the most repressive and closed off countries in the world, sons of the most powerful men in government are learning about the world beyond their borders.

Player utilities

(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, PUST, is an all-male institution, largely financed by westerners, and using mostly westerners as instructors. 

"It's the most bizarre academic institution in the world," said reporter Chris Rogers from the BBC Panorama program.

The BBC news documentary program visited the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology to get a rare look at the western-supported school.

"As you drive through the gates, you're greeted by armed guards," Rogers said, "and they're all female and many of them are wearing high heels."  

North Korean women are excluded from getting an education so their only role is to be armed guards at the university, not students. But, they're not there for students' security, they're there to keep an eye on any foreign visitors and on the foreign staff.  

That's not the only irony. Most of the teachers are from the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries deeply distrusted by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  Much of the funding also comes from US-based Christian charities.  

"North Korea is a county of contradictions. Nothing makes sense. The [North Korean] regime has decided to take a risk," said Rogers. "And to allow PUST to exist because they are so desperate for that knowledge of the western world and we're talking about how capitalism works, how businesses run, how it makes profit — the science and technology of the West and also the culture of the West. They also want their future regime leaders to be able to speak fluent English so they can do business with companies all over the world. So they're kind of tolerating it."

The teachers, he said, either work for free or are sponsored by Christian charities. "They want to be able to practice their religion openly and freely while they're there, even though religion isn't tolerated in North Korea."

Then there's the other risk — that the students, the future regime elite, have been exposed to western culture, to western pop music, fashion, ideas and thinking.  

But, the regime doesn't want the students to know everything about the western world, cautions Rogers. "You can give these students a Ford car engine and they're probably be able to take it apart and rebuild it," but that's it. 

Rogers asked an English classroom of students whether they knew of singer Michael Jackson and not one hand was raised. The only band they ever heard of was an all-girl propaganda band set up by Kim Jong-un. "He's like the Simon Cowell of Pyongyang," Rogers joked.  

The students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology don't have full access to the Internet. "A woman sits in the room and monitors every website they access." Rogers said the only time the students have access is if it relates to their studies. 

Rogers and his crew had a lot of access to interview the students and the faculty. "The students were very friendly. But it was very, very difficult to get into their mindset — to really find out what they were thinking. They very much stuck to the party line.

"I have never known what it's like not to have freedom. In North Korea everybody lives a regimented day. They have to go to exercise classes, they have to go to athletic lessons," Rogers said. "They have to study, they have to work for the country in the streets or factories and never have time to think for themselves."

Comments