Seoul (AFP) – The university where two of the latest three American detainees released by North Korea taught is unique: an institution founded and funded by foreign Christians in an isolated country that decries religion.
The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) was set up by James Kim, a wealthy evangelical Korean-American the North once detained on suspicion of being a US spy.
Only North Korean citizens can enrol, and it is known to educate many children of the country’s elite.
Opened in 2010, it now has 560 students and 100 “international volunteers”, according to its website, many of them coming to it through church organisations.
PUST says its mission is “to pursue excellence in education, with an international outlook, so that its students are diligent in studies, innovative in research and upright in character, bringing illumination to the Korean people and the world”.
But sources stress that it carries out no Christian proselytising, which is unwelcome by Pyongyang.
Although religious freedom is enshrined in the North Korean constitution, it does not exist in practice and religious activity is severely restricted to officially-recognised groups linked to the government.
Agricultural expert Kim Hak-song and former accounting professor Tony Kim were both lecturers at the institution but were arrested by North Korean authorities as they were leaving the country.
The university previously said their detentions were “not connected in any way with the work of PUST”, and it is understood the duo may have come to the attention of the Pyongyang authorities through previous Christian activities elsewhere.
The two, along with fellow detainee Kim Dong-chul, were granted “amnesty” by Pyongyang following a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and landed back in the United States on Thursday, to be welcomed by President Donald Trump.
– ‘Hopes and prayers’ –
“Our hopes and prayers have been fulfilled by their release,” PUST said in a statement.
The university expressed “sincere hope” that the detainees would be able to “now enjoy some peace and rest with their families and friends, and begin to rebuild normal life”.
The school itself has faced indirect repercussions from their detentions.
Tony Kim was arrested in April last year, Kim Hak-song the following month. Weeks later American student Otto Warmbier, who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for trying to steal a propaganda poster, was released in a mysterious coma and died shortly afterwards.
That prompted Washington to slap a travel ban on US citizens.
About half of PUST’s 80-odd foreign faculty were Americans who have been unable to return for this academic year as a result, and it has filled the gaps with Chinese replacements.
It has also had problems transferring funds and importing materials due to the sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear programme by the UN Security Council and others.
“We do of course hope that this is a step in a positive process that will lead to the US administration ending the travel ban on US citizens,” a school official told AFP, “so that many of our regular faculty and leadership can come back to the PUST campus and we can resume operations in a more normal way”.
On its website, PUST says it is hiring new faculty members: English and Chinese instructors, and professors for subjects ranging from stem cell culture technology to genetic engineering.
It does not mention the detention of its lecturers.
Korean-American writer Suki Kim went to PUST undercover as an English teacher in 2011 and later wrote a book about her experiences.
“PUST offers a mutually beneficial arrangement for both North Korea and the evangelicals,” she wrote in an essay published in the Washington Post last year following Tony Kim’s detention.
“The regime gets free education for its youth and a modern facility… while the evangelicals get a footing in the remote nation,” she said.