Former prisoner of North Korea builds university for his former captors

Decades after being imprisoned by North Korea on espionage charges, Dr. Kim Chin-Kyung is opening the first privately funded university in the north as a way to increase dialogue with the closed-off country.

Courtesy of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology
South Korean educator Kim Chin-kyung was honored as founder of North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in a September 2009 ceremony.

On a Korean War battlefield in 1950, the young, patriotic Kim Chin-kyung, then just 15, lay limp on the ground, wounded by shrapnel. In the months leading up to that moment, nearly all of the 800 troops in his South Korean Army unit had been wiped out. He wasn't sure if he would make it, either. So he struck a deal with his creator. "I told God that if I survived, I would return the love to my enemies," he says – his enemies at the time being North Korean and Chinese soldiers.

Nearly 60 years later, Dr. Kim has kept his promise – but in a way that has dropped the jaws of even the most hard-headed naysayers. He's the founder of the first privately funded university in communist North Korea, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a $35 million graduate school in the capital, Pyongyang, expected to start classes in April.

With an international faculty, courses taught in English, and eventually 2,600 students picked by the North Korean government, his work is a monumental step in opening relations between the two Koreas, which have been divided for more than half a century, his supporters say.

Kim first conceived of PUST about 15 years ago, when he decided educating youngsters in science and technology would be the best way to open diplomatic bridges between the North and the South.

"Educating people is a way to share what they love, and share their values," muses Kim who, ironically, was imprisoned in Pyongyang in 1998 on suspicion of being an American spy.

Around the 248-acre campus will be a "Pyongyang Techno Park" in which foreign firms are invited to invest. Ben Rosen, an early investor in Compaq Computer, who toured the construction site in 2008, has given the project his thumbs up.

The university will start out modestly, with only 150 students enrolled in the first class. At first, PUST will consist of three schools: industry and management; information and communication technology; and agriculture, food, and life sciences. Within a few years the university plans to add an engineering school and a public health school, Kim says.

Even after four years of delays, the project's humble beginnings haven't deterred Kim (who now goes by the Western first name of James). After all, this is the second time he's built a college in an isolated communist country, an earlier success that in part led the North Korean government to approve PUST in the first place.

In 1992, at a time when China was much more closed to foreigners, Kim, a philosopher and theologian by training, founded the first foreign-owned university in northeastern China, called the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST).

Ask Kim about where he finds his inspiration, and he'll always say "love." The cheerful professor sees love as a force that stretches across borders, with education as a toolbox to apply it. That point of view arose from his near-death experience 60 years ago, when he realized his life could be put to use helping his enemies.

"Their political system doesn't matter," he says, referring to his first project in China. "If you approach them with love, they will move their hearts."

When dealing with students, the jovial and charismatic Kim gives out all the love he can muster. At YUST, Kim and his wife lived in the same dorm building as his students, and he often roamed the hallways talking with them. Along with their formal studies, students were expected to help out at nursing homes and orphanages as part of their education – part of Kim's philosophy of service to humanity.

The commitment to service Kim imparted to his students in China brings employers from all over South Korea and China to recruit at YUST. The university is widely considered one of the best in that country.

For that reason PUST will take a similar approach. But because PUST is being built under a closed and staunchly anti-Western regime, Kim sometimes hears skepticism about his project.

"We don't expect PUST to be successful," says Myung Il-kwak, a manager at the North Korean Intellectuals' Solidarity, a group of North Korean academics who have defected to Seoul, in South Korea. "The regime is [putting] a lot of restrictions on what foreign professors can do and can't do. It will be hard to get a normal and good education under these conditions."

Yet critics expressed the same reservations when Kim founded YUST, now a success.

The regime could use the university to educate military scientists, who could then speed up North Korea's development of nuclear and chemical weapons, Mr. Myung adds – though he also concedes that possibility is unlikely.

Kim has heard that criticism, and says science education can be put to use for good purposes, too. "It's a matter of how humans value it [science]," he says. "If people use it the wrong way, they can make bombs and kill each other. Or with nuclear technology they can create electricity."

Others have said PUST will help prepare the country for an inevitable change of regime by training a generation of internationally minded technocrats who will one day be in power.

PUST is funded mostly by aid groups and through Kim's own savings, which he earned from running three small businesses in South Korea and Florida between the 1960s and 1980s and by selling his house and belongings. "I started the businesses to fund the universities," he says. "Peace has a price, and it should be paid by those who have money."

Money, however, was not the deciding factor in Kim's success. Rather, it was his passion for education.

"When I went to China and North Korea, I told them I was not a capitalist or a communist," he says. "I was simply a 'love-ist.' "

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