PUST Getting Off the Ground in Pyongyang

The completion ceremony for the first set of buildings at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the first privately-funded university in North Korea, is being held today, September 16th.

Situated on 1,000,000 acres of land in Nakrang-district, Pyongyang, the university is being built mostly by virtue of donations from religious groups and South Korean individuals, although that includes $1 million from the South Korean Ministry of Unification.

When it is up and running at capacity, PUST hopes to educate 2000 undergraduates in addition to its initial goal of 600 graduate students, with the first graduate school student graduation ceremony scheduled for 2012.

According to its founder, American entrepreneur Dr. James Kim, the idea for PUST came into being after a delegation of North Koreans approached him about starting an institution modeled on the Yanbian Institute of Science and Technology, or YUST, in Yanji, China, which he founded in the early 1990s.

In an interview with CNN’s Fortune magazine, Dr. Kim explained that YUST quickly proved to the Chinese government, and apparently to the North Korean authorities too, that he and his ideas did not represent a threat to them.

Dr. Kim also explained in the interview that PUST will offer what amounts to an MBA in its School of Industrial Management.

However, David Kim, one of Dr. Kim’s founding associates and himself a former Bechtel executive, explained that even the acronym “MBA” sounds, to the North Koreans, “vaguely imperialistic,” so the course will operate under a different name.

Despite Dr. Kim’s relentless enthusiasm for the project, PUST’s future is hitherto uncertain. As with all things, it is being built and will operate at the whim of Kim Jong Il, a fact which became all too clear last year when Kim Jong Il’s stroke, and the ensuing domestic and international instability, caused the project to be frozen and the original date for today’s ceremony to be cancelled.

Furthermore, PUST suffers the slings and arrows of inter-Korean relations. A Yonhap News report yesterday explained how South Korea is “withholding faculty exchanges and shipments of computers amid the diplomatic stalemate over the North’s nuclear drive.”

Critics of the project assert that Dr. Kim must have paid off Kim Jong Il in order to get permission for the project. For his part, Dr. Kim says he has “unlimited credit at the Bank of Heaven.” Other critics argue that the university will only assist the North Korean elite stay in power. After all, in Dr. Kim’s own words, “We’re not going to change North Korea. We’re going to help it.”

Regardless, a delegation of twenty South Koreans, mostly from religious groups but including an aide to the president, arrived in Pyongyang yesterday for the ceremony after being given permission to travel by the authorities in Seoul.