North Korean university draws U.S.
evangelicals despite risks
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[May 11, 2017]
By James Pearson and Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - Like many other Americans
who came to teach at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science
and Technology (PUST), Kim Hak Song was a Christian missionary who
raised money from a church to come to North Korea.
Kim had been running PUST's experimental farm before he was detained on
Saturday, traveling by train from Pyongyang to China's border town of
Dandong, PUST's chancellor and co-founder Chan-mo Park told Reuters.
The university, which is open about its Christian affiliation, says its
sole mission is to help North Korea's future elite learn the skills to
modernize the isolated country and engage with the outside world. Former
teachers say the faculty is careful to avoid anything that looks like
The university attracts a steady stream of devout American Christians,
despite North Korea's history of handing down long sentences with hard
labor to missionaries accused of various transgressions.
North Korea has in the past used detainees to extract concessions,
including high-profile visits from the United States, which has no
formal diplomatic relations with North Korea.
Chancellor Park said roughly 60 U.S. citizens come to PUST each
semester, but now "there's less than that".
North Korea's official news agency KCNA said Kim was detained for
"hostile acts", without elaborating. Tony Kim, another professor who
worked at PUST, was arrested two weeks earlier for a similar reason.
A spokesman for the university which opened in 2010, said the arrests of
the two faculty members were "not connected in any way with the work of
The detentions came amid tensions on the Korean peninsula over North
Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons in response to what it says is a
threat of a U.S.-instigated war.
The White House said on Monday the latest reported detentions were
"concerning" and the State Department was working with the Swedish
embassy in Pyongyang to seek their release.
SETTING CHRISTIAN EXAMPLES
Two years before he was detained, Kim Hak Song raised money for his trip
to North Korea from members of the Korean-language Sao Paulo Oriental
Mission church in Brazil, according to his post on the church's website.
"I've committed to devoting my last drop of blood to this work," he
Kim, a Chinese-Korean and naturalized U.S. citizen, had been doing
missionary work in China before joining PUST, according to
Korean-language church websites.
Kim's detention makes him the fourth American in North Korean custody.
(See Graphic: http://tmsnrt.rs/2pmE3ks)
In March last year, North Korea sentenced U.S. college student Otto
Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor for the alleged theft of a propaganda
poster. South Korean-born Kim Dong Chul, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was
convicted a month later and sentenced to 10 years hard labor – shortly
after Washington levied more sanctions against Pyongyang in response to
a missile test in February of that year.
Founded by Korean-American evangelical Christian James Kim, PUST spends
roughly $2 million annually on operating expenses, the school said in a
statement. Much of it comes from the Korean diaspora in the United
States, along with churches in South Korea and private foundations and
PUST has 500 undergraduate students and 60 graduate students in mostly
three departments -- electronic and computer engineering, international
finance and management and agriculture and life sciences.
The school recruits many of its teachers from Korean churches and
Christian colleges in the United States. Faculty receive no income or
stipends from the university, but do get housing and cafeteria meals.
[to top of second column]
Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary who has been
detained in North Korea for more than a year, appears before a
limited number of media outlets in Pyongyang in this undated photo
released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on
January 20, 2014. REUTERS/KCNA/File Photo
PUST has a sister institution across the border in northern China
called the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST).
Tony Kim, the first PUST faculty member to be detained, was listed
as a professor of accounting at YUST on its website. He moved to
PUST in 2006, four years before the university opened, to "take care
of financial matters," according to the newsletter seen by Reuters,
which was recruiting teachers for the school.
PUST also recruits teachers via social media and at overseas
universities and churches, via the YUST PUST Foundation, its
U.S.-based charity arm according to the foundation's website, and
The foundation raised just over $1.1 million in 2015 and has brought
in $4.5 million since 2011, according to tax filings.
The recent detentions are not the first time teachers from the
school have attracted unwanted attention.
A 2014 memoir by Korean-American Suki Kim, compiled while she was an
English professor at PUST, said the faculty was constantly
Former PUST teachers said her account was exaggerated. "The reality
is much softer and friendlier," one said.
Not all PUST teachers are religious.
Will Scott, a research fellow at the University of Michigan who
taught at PUST in 2013 and 2015, told Reuters he felt welcome in the
community despite being an atheist.
"The foreigners would have a service on Sundays for themselves, but
wouldn't talk about it around the students or in class," said Scott,
who taught a software engineering class to PUST students.
Most of the students have little access to outside information in
the very closed society they live in.
"You see students minds opening, world view expanding, curiosity
rising and ethical aspects of life coming into the picture," said a
former PUST teacher, who declined to be named.
Abraham Kim is the executive director of the Chicago University
Bible Fellowship, which donated $30,000 in 2013 to PUST's campaign
to build a new medical school.
He said that while the volunteers "can't directly preach the word of
God, we can indirectly influence the people there by being good
(Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang in SEOUL, Joseph Ax and
Angela Moon in NEW YORK, Alex Dobuzinskis in LOS ANGELES, Editing by
Bill Tarrant and So Young Kim)
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