North Korea’s International University

A trail of thirtyish couples with coffees in hand floated on the streets this morning, like wood planks and barrels from a wreck at sea. Gradually their density increased as I approached a hulking shape looming through the fog, which turned out to be an elementary school releasing parents with free coffees as they returned to their now-childless homes.

It’s back-to-school season in America.

North and South Korea both operate on different school calendars; for them, the school year begins in spring. When I taught English in South Korea, the school year ended in December and started again in early March. North Korean schools start about a month later at the beginning of April.

The difference is probably hard to imagine for most Americans; it conflicts with our whole concept of summer as a time of vacation, of idleness and play, of long days to fill with things other than school.

But for all the difference, going back to school is pretty much the same in spirit everywhere. Kids still have that anxious, excited energy to them and haven’t yet rediscovered the boredom of regular school days. And parents still want to take photos with their darlings before leaving them.

Parents take photos with their children on the first day of school at Pyongyang Middle School No. 1 on April 2, 2012. (Photo credit AP Photo / Jon Chol Jin). 

There’s no reason to think that the Korean school year will—or should—ever line up with the American one. But more important similarities are growing elsewhere. In the field of higher education, a North Korean university quite different from all the others has been shaking up the playing field. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) was commissioned in 2001 as North Korea’s first privately funded university. It was mostly paid for and planned by evangelical Christian groups outside the country, but its path has been carefully supervised by the North Korean government through their Ministry of Education.

The university opened in 2010 and aims to be a true international university inside North Korea. Graduate students can access the Internet, and sirens announce oncoming blackouts so that students can save their work on their computers. Economics classes, taught by professors from the US and Europe, focus on capitalism. The university also hopes to bring in professors from South Korea, but current travel bans (in place since the March 2010 sinking of the Cheonan) prohibit South Koreans from visiting North Korea. As is standard among many top technical schools internationally, many courses are taught in English.

Dr. John Knapp of Samford University teaches an course at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). The course is entitled “The University as a Community of Moral Formation.” (Photo credit Frances Marlin Mann Center for Ethics and Leadership, Samford University).


The university will offer practical knowledge and skills—in diverse fields including operations management, agriculture, robotics, medicine, bioinformatics, semiconductor engineering, civil engineering, and many others—that can improve the lives of everyone in North Korea. It will also offer North Korean students the chance to learn from and interact with respected professors from South Korea, Europe, and elsewhere in the world; and, in turn, the university is hoped to eventually foster more foreign investment and interaction with North Korea.

Perhaps most ideally, the founders hope PUST will operate as a bridge between the North and South. The concept is reminiscent of Kaesong Industrial Complex, but instead of the joint production of material products, the university will be bringing North and South Koreans together to generate new ideas. Kaesong has been a successful example of enclave capitalism increasing interaction between the two countries; PUST also has a strong chance of being a successful and enduring bridge of the gap between North Korea and the rest of the world.

Architectural plan for Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). (Photo Credit


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