Free rein is not something readily handed out in North Korea. But Kim Jin-kyung, a native South Korean, is using just such a mandate to bring technology education to Pyongyang, the North's capital.
Mr. Kim, the president of Yanbian University of Science and Technology in northeastern China, plans to open a new school with 500 graduate students next spring. North Korea likely hopes that such an institution can help kick-start the economy, while maintaining a grip on power.
"Any professors I invite, [the North] must accept," says Kim. "If [North Korea's leadership] just asks for hardware, buildings, or computers ... it doesn't mean anything. The problem is you need professors, scientists, and technicians."
While didactic tomes of communist ideology have been a staple for North Korean college students during decades of the country's self-imposed isolation, the new Pyongyang University of Information, Science, and Technology will teach an American-style MBA program, information technology, and biotechnology, and could bring meaningful change, say observers.
In some ways, the school is just the latest step in opening North Korea. In the past year and a half, it has established relations with nearly every Western European nation. About 400 North Korean officials have studied market economics at classes arranged by the United Nations Development Program since leader Kim Jong Il took full control of the North in 1998, according to South Korea's Unification Ministry.
Nevertheless, Kim Jin kyung faces the daunting task of establishing an internationally oriented university in the world's most closed society. Radios are factory-welded to state-run stations that spout propaganda. All citizens are given a security rating, and a surveillance web keeps tabs on everyone. Labor camps are filled with people guilty of minor infractions against the state.
Kim says that the regime has given him a free hand to design the curriculum and hire faculty. In the first year, he wants to bring in 100 professors from 10 countries. He has previously built an orphanage/ school in North Korea and begun a hospital. He says the university "is a really unbelievable thing." About $30 million is needed to build it, and, as with his other projects, Kim is counting on established contacts with Christian communities in South Korea and elsewhere to help him raise funds.
Kim sees the project as helping North Koreans improve their standard of living. "This is a long-time closed country. They do not have any kind of international sense. In the first stage, you can help training young people, especially in information technology."
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, North Korea no longer sent students to study in Eastern Europe. "Their only choice was to invite me," Kim says.
Whether North Korea is opening or not, or whether it even has a long-term plan, is a point of much speculation. "Kim Jong Il's preoccupation is not 10 to 15 years from now. He has very immediate concerns," says Kim Eui-taik, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry. "A lot of his people are dying of hunger. Unless he does something about the deteriorating economy, he knows that North Korea is doomed. He's begging for fertilizer, he's begging for food. He knows there is a tremendous need to open up the society."
Yet others say that because Kim Jong Il has never lived in a free society, he doesn't fully understand the risk that information brings.
Regardless of the motivation, South Korea hopes the North's interaction will have a stabilizing effect. "As these contacts continue, you have to slowly, step by step abide by the rules," says Kim, the foreign ministry spokesman. "You can't, by force have North Korea change its behavior. But once foreign companies start doing business in North Korea, North Korea's behavior will slowly change out of necessity. These changes can then be reflected in many sectors of the society."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor