Capitalism, in hermit North Korea, is normally associated with moral and economic ruin.
The Korea-born American who heads Pyongyang’s only private university is trying to change that. He believes he has the support of the man many think is emerging as the real power in the North, whose new leaders are pondering how to save their broken economy from collapse.
The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, co-founded by Chan-mo Park, is teaching dozens of North Koreans the skills of a modern market economy, something the impoverished state has managed for decades to avoid.
“I want whatever they learn to be used to revive their country’s economy,” Park told Reuters in an interview in Seoul, one of the world’s most wired cities in sharp contrast to Pyongyang which even though it is home to North Korea’s elite, struggles to provide its residents with power or heating.
“We emphasize practicality and commercialisation of their knowledge,” said the 77-year-old computer scientist, who used to be president of a South Korean university.
Park’s comments come as speculation grows young leader Kim Jong-un, who took over the ruling family dynasty on the death of his father in December, is planning to experiment with economic reforms in a country which is constantly on the edge of famine.
Much of the interest has been on his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who seen as having huge influence of the running of the country and who is believed to favour economic reforms.
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The university began life at the turn of the century when relations between the two Koreas were starting to warm after decades of bitter divide.
It finally opened its doors in October 2010 and now has 300 undergraduate and 70 graduate students in its three departments: electronic and computer engineering, international finance and management and agriculture and life sciences.
The students are handpicked from those who have studied at least two years at the country’s top state colleges. So far all the students are men, but it is considering building a dormitory for women.
“International finance and management study is very popular. Maybe it is because the dean (of that department)… told students in a seminar: ‘If you do this, you can make lots of money’,” a smiling Park said.
“Students study very hard to learn (about the Western economy). Although they have some weaknesses in basics, they have no problem to catch up because they are good at math.”
Everything, including tuition and living costs at dormitories, is free. Students have a monthly $10 cash card to buy snacks at the cafeteria.
Although the North Korean government provides no funding, it did mobilise 1,000 soldiers to construct the campus, which has 17 buildings, above one of which hangs a sign eulogising new leader Kim.
The students, Park says, are industrious and keen to learn.
Asked if they found capitalism an alien concept, he said: “Even students from the information technology field already know they should learn about the economy to make money.”
Park has been to Pyongyang dozens of times, most recently in July, and says he is seeing change in what is one of the world’s most secretive and tightly controlled societies.
“When I took the subway, I was allowed to film freely with my video camera. In the past, even still cameras were prohibited. We were allowed to dance with ordinary citizens,” he added.
Even the about 50 professors, many of them from Western countries, were finding the strain of being under constant surveillance beginning to fade.
He singled out Jang Song-thaek, uncle of young leader Kim Jong-un.
“I am thinking and hoping that Jang can help his nephew to lead North Korea in a new direction of globalisation,” said Park.
Jang married into North Korea’s ruling family and is thought to have spent time in exile after losing favour for proposing economic reforms that analysts say were opposed by the military.
He later returned and was placed near the top of the hierarchy by then leader Kim Jong-il who was preparing the ground for his son to take over.
It is a position which many analysts say gives the uncle huge power and who is expected to try to drive through reforms to the economy.
Park said he first met Jang in 2002 in South Korea when he was part of an economic delegation of high-ranking North Korean officials.
“I showed my laboratory. At that time, I found that he was gentle and different from other North Koreans who lived only inside the North, since he studied four years in Russia.”
In April, they met again at a major celebration in Pyongyang. He said it was Jang whom he believed was behind support for the university’s focus on globalisation.
GOOGLE AROUND THE WEB
Unlike most of the rest of the heavily controlled society, for whom use of the Internet is largely proscribed, the students can google their way around the Web.
Park acknowledges those who question the wisdom of providing such knowledge in North Korea, which has long been internationally sanctioned for its nuclear weapon and missile programmes and penchant for cyber attacks.
“We have only one IP address, so students can’t spend a long time for the internet. They only use it for their study,” Park said.
The official line, however, remains deeply suspicious of an economic system where markets rather than the state have a major say.
“The lifestyle based on the law of the jungle and all descriptions of immorality and depravity are turning capitalist society into the world of violence and crimes… capitalism is on its way to ruin,” was the view of one recent article in the state daily Rodong Sinmun. -By Ju-min Park