A North Korean university keeps drawing US evangelicals to teach — despite the risks – Business Insider
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 missionary work.
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
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
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
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 PUST”.
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,”
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
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 philanthropists.
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
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
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
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
(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)