Is academic life in North Korea as strange and difficult as you think?

Even universities in the hermit kingdom largely cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Yet those few Westerners with direct experience of them suggest that while critical inquiry is predictably unwelcome, the global publish or perish culture is starting to take hold. Pola Lem reports

五月 26, 2022
Mosaic in Pyongyang
Source: Getty

In 2017, 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier returned home from North Korea in a coma. He had gone there as a tourist at the end of 2015 but was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel. A few days after being released by North Korea on compassionate grounds, he died.

If you google “North Korea” and “student”, Warmbier’s mysterious and contested case dominates the search results. Keep scrolling the reams of outraged copy the case generated and you will also find the case of a North Korean student sentenced to death last year for smuggling copies of the South Korean Netflix drama Squid Game into the country, and the case of Alek Sigley, an Australian student who was studying at a Pyongyang university before being deported in 2019 amid accusations of spying.

Information about the North Korean student experience for those who aren’t jailed or deported is conspicuous by its absence.

Like so much in North Korea, the country’s higher education system is a black box to outsiders. And such news stories, allied to the generally negative perception of the isolated totalitarian state and its leader, Kim Jong-un, make it easy to assume that life for students and academics there must be nightmarish. Not many foreigners have even visited the country’s universities – and fewer still have taught or studied in them. But Times Higher Education has managed to speak to several people with experience of North Korea’s academia. And their accounts reveal that in some senses, student and academic life is much the same at North Korean universities as anywhere else. In other ways, however, it is indeed a world apart.

Back in the mid-1980s when Ji-hyun Park was a student in North Korea, there was no question about where she’d attend university. At 17, Park turned in her exam results and the government told her where she would go – just as it still does today.

Park, who later defected to the UK, was to complete a four-year degree at an agricultural university in North Hamgyong, the country’s northernmost province, within walking distance of her home. The country’s most prestigious universities are located far away in the capital, Pyongyang, but her parents were proud anyway. After her older sister, she was only the second in the family to go to university.

Park’s days were long. Classes began at 8am and ended at 4pm. Then she was obliged to listen to mandatory political talks and take part in organised activities. When she arrived home, around 8pm, a pile of homework awaited her attention.

“The homework was really hard because it’s not just one subject but also Kim Il-sung history,” she recalls; Kim Il-sung, the current leader’s grandfather, led the officially named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994. His son, Kim Jong-il, ruled until his own death in 2011.

On campus, Park and 30 or so classmates would stay in one room, with different teachers coming to lecture. About half their time was devoted to learning what outside academics might deem political propaganda. Everything needed to be committed to memory, making studies “very boring”.

While many of her classmates were starting university right out of high school, others – those who weren’t as strong academically – joined after several years of military service, and they bullied the younger students into doing their homework.

“I said no, so I was punished [with] one year [of] cleaning the toilet,” she laughs, cringing. The punishment was more tolerable in winter, when the toilet, located outdoors, was “not too smelly”. In summer, it was horrible.

Park’s least favourite time, though, was during planting and harvest seasons, when the government would send her class to a collective farm. From planting beans to shucking corn, they’d spend more than a month in spring and two weeks in autumn doing gruelling work she now jokes was “forced labour”.

However, at least she had the good fortune to have her family home near her university. Otherwise, she would have had to stay in university accommodation, where she would have shared a small room with three or four people, subsisting on bland cafeteria meals of rice with soup.

Later students had it even harder. In the 1990s, famine swept the country, killing millions. James Hoare, who served as British chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang after the UK and North Korea re-established diplomatic relations in 2000, recalls stories recounted by British teachers working in the country at the time – typically in unheated classrooms.

“Students were falling asleep because of the cold and because they just didn’t have anything to eat. Some just disappeared because they died,” says Hoare.

Park’s time studying was a “fairly typical university experience”. Still, she finds it hard to ignore the gaping holes in her education. Until she fled North Korea in 1998, she didn’t know what the “United Kingdom” meant, or that East and West Germany had reunified eight years earlier.

“I graduated but didn’t learn anything – we never learned widely, only what teachers wanted to say,” says Park.

Student in Pyongyang

Outdated as it was, Park’s education was probably similar to what most North Korean students learn today: entirely out of step with what goes on in the rest of the world but calculated to instil political ideology and prepare students for life in what is still a largely rural, largely poor collectivist society.

Like Park’s, most of North Korea’s 300-odd institutions are specialist colleges, offering courses in practical subjects such as mining, agriculture and marine transport. The system was built on a Soviet-style model, where teaching is separate from research and institutions follow a narrow curriculum.

The most detailed insight into North Korean higher education comes via the anomalous Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). As the country’s only private university, it is one of very few to employ foreigners – although the word “employ” disguises the fact that PUST’s overseas faculty are all unpaid volunteers, drawn to the country by a sense of mission or curiosity.

Even they are tightly controlled, however. To go into Pyongyang, for instance, foreign instructors must present a reason and be accompanied by North Korean minders. Inside PUST, they can have lunch with students and talk to them, but the students are always in the company of watchful peers. The university’s structure also ensures that teachers don’t introduce any concepts that might irk the regime. PUST has a “parallel directorate”, with one cohort made up of foreigners and the other by their North Korean counterparts. “The North Korean side have the veto – everything we do ultimately has to fit in with government plans,” says Colin McCulloch, director of external relations at PUST and one of its deans. “At the level of what I’m going to teach, each course is agreed with my local academic partners.” That includes all class materials: “I couldn’t walk into a classroom with a pile of handouts…It has to go through the North Korean academic office.”

At Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University (KIS), the country’s first and most prestigious institution, founded in 1946, information from foreigners is also strictly controlled. The country’s answer to Harvard, KIS admits only the crème de la crème of North Korean society. To get in, students need top marks and unimpeachable social standing.

Alek Sigley
Alek Sigley was deported from North Korea amid accusations of spying

Sigley, the Australian student deported in 2019, is the only Western student to have pursued a master’s degree there. Formerly a tour operator in North Korea, he was able to gain admission thanks to his North Korean business contacts. He enjoyed immense freedom for a Westerner, able to go out to restaurants in Pyongyang with other internationals – many of them Chinese exchange students – without North Korean minders. Indeed, it was this freedom that got him into trouble; he describes the reasons for his deportation (after nine days of interrogation) as “complex” but boiling down to “falling afoul of the paranoia of the North Korean secret police. The charges were trumped up, and there was a certain degree of arbitrariness involved in my arrest.” One of the “crimes” he was accused of amounted to uploading a picture of a toy North Korean tank to Instagram.

But even with – or perhaps because of – his fluent Korean, Sigley wasn’t able to mix with local students, except for those assigned to live in the international dormitory to keep tabs on foreigners. While he became friendly with his North Korean room-mate, a chain-smoking but likeable enough guy, he knew that they could never be entirely candid with one another. And his interactions with locals on his master’s course were non-existent. Instead, he had private lessons.  

Even though he was at KIS for more than a year, he “never got to meet a single fellow graduate student from Korean literature”, he says. He also wasn’t allowed to see his course textbook on narrative structure, despite its uncontroversial subject matter.

“The textbook was written by the professor who taught me, but they wouldn’t let me borrow or purchase a copy of his book,” he laughs.

Other books accessible to North Koreans were also out of bounds. If Sigley asked about going to the university library, the local students would change the subject. And he didn’t know of any other foreigners who had visited it.

In North Korea, the information barrier goes both ways – designed to keep information about the country in and foreign influence out. But in the modern era, computers pose a greater informational risk to the regime than books do.

Hoare, who laid the groundwork for the British embassy in North Korea, remembers visiting the KIS campus when he first arrived in North Korea in the early 2000s. He got the sense the computers there were display pieces to show Western visitors.

“You would occasionally see a computer, but if you looked closely, it wasn’t actually connected. Now they’ve got state-of-the art Dell equipment…probably far better than I’ve got at home.”

But these are still unlikely to be connected to the internet. Most people, including many academics, do not have access to the web at all; even in North Korea’s trade and foreign ministries, access is “very limited”, Hoare says. Instead, most North Koreans use the “Kwangmyong” intranet. Translating as “Bright Light”, this is North Korea’s closed-circuit version of the World Wide Web.

At KIS, though, the two foreign student dorms each have a computer room, with unrestricted internet access. Sigley remembers how the Chinese international students would play online video games without any interference; the university authorities “don’t care because we’re already corrupted by bourgeois capitalist society”, he jokes.

But the North Korean student-minders “wouldn’t dare enter” the computer room, and even administrators kept their distance. “Even the guy from the international office couldn’t go in and use it,” Sigley recalls.

Computers in North Korea

How, then, do North Korean academics manage to research anything? The answer, according to Hoare, is that they have access to academic journals. The quality of the country’s own publications is miles behind that of reputable international journals, according to those who have read them. Of KIS’ own journal, Sigley says: “It’s what you’d expect: for humanities, the kind of stuff based in the early 20th century. It’s written from a crude Marxist perspective…When it comes to criticising America for racism, yeah, but when it comes to talking about Korea itself, it’s suddenly unable to say anything. It assumes that all Koreans identify with this idea that there’s no class conflict there.”

However, the country’s academics also have access to fairly up-to-date international journals – even if the content is vetted. And, incongruously, the Western “publish and perish” culture is also reaching even this remote corner of academia, with concepts like the h-index, a measure of publication quality and volume, starting to catch on. Some North Korean researchers are clearly trying to get their work into international journals; Sigley recalls seeing noticeboards on campus with announcements “congratulating a Professor Kim, who published an article” in a journal in the Social Sciences Citation Index.

But the vast majority of North Korean academics would struggle to get their work published in top Western journals. Sigley recounts how one of his teachers asked him to share their work with a professor in Australia. The professor’s response was blunt: “This writing is worse than my undergraduates’…There’s absolutely nothing we can do to salvage this.”

When North Korean academics find that they can’t publish in foreign journals, they often turn to predatory journals, which publish substandard papers for a fee. “They’re absolutely cut off from outside world. The system in which they do their intellectual work is one which sees any kind of real critical thinking as a threat,” says Sigley.

North Korean librarians next to a portrait of Kim Jong-Il

That verdict is endorsed by Leonid Petrov, a scholar of North Korea and international relations in north-east Asia at the Australian National University. “They have that reclusive mentality which does not permit them to raise critical questions or think liberally, improvise or be creative,” he says.

Even at KIS, which is among few universities to hold international conferences, talk is tightly controlled. Right after presentations end, where there would usually be a Q&A session, attendees file out of the meeting hall.

“There’s no discussion at all. In the North Korean system, there’s no room for them to allow that degree of intellectual exchange,” says Sigley.

Undergraduate students also have a conference where they share presentations, but the experience is similar, he says. “They call it a conference, but it’s more like a performance – there’s no exchange; they have no input.”

Intellectually unexciting though it may be, academia is highly revered by North Korean students and families – and its rewards can be considerable. Since the 1990s, academic research has “almost exclusively” become “the major promotion area for social advance for young determined people from a ‘bad’ family background”, says Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul and director of the consultancy Korea Risk Group. Whereas, once, such individuals would be consigned to heavy physical work “somewhere in a long-forgotten town”, now, “if you’re smart and good at math and physics, you have a chance”.

Around the year 2000, North Korea scrapped its earlier restrictions on who could become a scientist, making it easier for bright students with less social currency to enter the field. The regime in effect said, “it doesn’t matter that your second uncle made a bad joke about the leader in 1962”, says Petrov. “And you know what? [North Korea’s] missiles began to fly” rather than, as previously, crashing during testing.

But despite its advancements in certain areas of hard science, North Korean academia has languished. Among foreign academics, its humanities and social sciences are regarded as an anthropological curiosity at best and a joke at worst. As Lankov puts it, “humanities for them is a sideshow. It’s a bit like embroidery.” Social sciences does not fare much better.

Missiles display

Yet whatever the limitations of their teachers, learning materials or methods, North Korean students make up for it with sheer grit. Abroad, they get glowing praise.

Eun-jeung Lee, a professor at the Free University of Berlin and director of its Institute of Korean Studies, has taught North Koreans several times. “Most of them are the best in their courses – you want to have such students,” she says. Far from being shy, North Koreans are “very active” in discussions, she adds – though faculty avoid breaching sensitive topics or making any comments that directly criticise North Korean leaders.

Petrov recalls that even back in the 1980s, when he was a student in St Petersburg, the North Korean exchange students had excellent Russian pronunciation and near-native grammar. He understands only too well their thirst for knowledge.

“I was a Soviet student myself. Every word, every bit of knowledge you acquire, is your ticket to the larger world…They don’t have many opportunities, so they grab every opportunity with both hands.”

The North Korean students who go abroad are carefully selected, with the opportunity extended only to those who are “both trusted and smart” says Petrov. But that trust only goes so far. Back at home, students’ families are kept under close watch. If their offspring abroad misbehave or defect, their relatives can be sure to experience retaliation.

Moreover, perhaps more than academics in any other nation in the world, North Korean researchers’ and students’ international opportunities are tied to the current political zeitgeist. When relations between their country and the outside world sour, academic exchanges fall apart. For instance, in 1990, the Soviet Union – until then, a popular destination for North Korean students – established diplomatic relations with South Korea. This prompted North Korea, the following summer, to recall all its students from the USSR – although, by the 2000s, universities in the Russian Federation were again hosting hundreds of them.

At this point, Petrov had already moved to Australia. As a young scholar living in Canberra in the late 1990s – an era when the US rolled back some sanctions on North Korea – he interacted with North Korean students sponsored by the United Nations, who tended to study English or economics. But their language skills were low to begin with and their stay was limited to one year. By the time they’d built up some language proficiency, they were recalled home.

“I had the sense they had to forget everything after their return, and didn’t talk to anyone about their experiences, because that was a violation of North Korea’s security law,” he says.

More recent academic interactions have been plagued by the same geopolitical divisions, says the Free University of Berlin’s Lee. For instance, the European Union, which had traditionally maintained a better relationship with North Korea than the US had, passed a series of sanctions against the North in response to the country’s testing of nuclear missiles from 2006. The memorandum of understanding that the Free University was on the verge of signing in 2015 with Kim Il-sung University, cementing its intentions for a partnership, fell victim to these tensions in 2016, when North Korea carried out its fifth missile test in defiance of the United Nations. North Korean nationals, including researchers, were banned from working in the EU. Sanctions also prevented the bloc from exporting “all dual-use goods” – items with military applications, including many chemicals and certain technologies. In practice, the sanctions made it far more difficult for North Korean institutions to source computers or lab equipment.

As a result, McCulloch recalls that in 2017, PUST was “hanging on by our fingernails”, and even now still can’t supply computers “because they’re a forbidden product. Luckily, our students are well off enough that they do have laptops or tablets.”

Academic exchanges also remain very difficult. The Trump administration banned all Americans from travelling to North Korea, including roughly half of PUST’s teachers – many of whom were naturalised former South Korean citizens. Sanctions also ended money transactions into North Korea, limiting the university’s ability to pay staff and operating costs. “You can’t just go to your bank and say, ‘I want to transfer $50K to pay the cafeteria [staff],’” McCulloch explains.

Yet, despite all the difficulties, McCulloch is a strong proponent of continuing the internationalisation endeavour. “Our students get to experience interaction with foreigners in the long term, and in some sense, on a more intimate basis than they would get otherwise,” he says. “We’re opening a window on the world for them.”

Nor is McCulloch the only one to back continued efforts to fulfil the slogan displayed on a wall in PUST: “Plant your feet on the motherland and look out on the world.” Indeed, it is a common view among academics that their profession should remain a bridge, even when diplomatic ties are strained. As Lee points out, dialogue between East and West Germany was possible during the Cold War in part thanks to connections between scholars, facilitating back channels.

Sigley himself also believes that despite the inherent political – and personal – risks run on both sides, exchange is better than the alternative. He has not had any contact with KIS since his deportation. “Apparently, I've been expelled,” he says. “They won’t give me a copy of my academic transcript, even though I was academically the top-performing foreign student.” Still, he regrets his expulsion.

“Despite the downsides, I liked it there,” he insists. “Yes, the government is ultra authoritarian, but there are nice sides to Pyongyang and North Korea that you'll rarely hear about because we’re fixated on how totalitarian it is. I got along well with my teachers and had basically finished the coursework component of my MA and was preparing to write my thesis. I certainly wanted to graduate, and after that continue the tourism and academic exchange work I was doing, which I still regard to be valuable.” 

And Sigley is convinced that the West’s curiosity about the black box of North Korea is reciprocated.

“North Korean intellectuals are aware of their country’s isolation,” he says. “Like us, they are predisposed to be curious and open-minded. International academic exchange is something I think most of them yearn for.”



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