Why did N. Korea relocate its National Defense University?

The story behind the National Defense University's move from Jagang Province to Pyongyang

defense university
A Google Earth image showing the former site of the National Defense University in Kanggye, Jagang Province (the red line). The yellow and green lines show the current location of the Lee Jae Sun Military Academy and Kanggye Engineering University, respectively. / Image: Google Earth

This article is part of a series written by Daily NK journalist Kim Jeong Hyun entitled “North Korea’s Secret Stories.” 

In the early 2000s, students attending the Lee Jae Sun Military Academy in Pyongyang along with their families received an unwelcome surprise: they were suddenly relocated overnight to a remote part of Jagang Province in the countryside. Why? The relocation order happened to come from none other than Kim Il Sung himself. 

According to official sources, Lee Jae Sun used to be in charge of espionage operations in Korea during Kim Il Sung’s armed struggle against Japan. He died in 1937 during the “Hyesan Incident,” in which North Korean and Chinese forces attacked and defeated Japanese units in Pochonbo. Kim Il Sung subsequently ordered the “Border Security Command Military Officer Academy” in Pyongyang to be renamed after Lee to honor his efforts to achieve Korean independence. 


According to Daily NK sources in North Korea, the military academy operated normally until 1990. The academy then fell into a rut due to orders made by Kim Il Sung at the time.  

Kim Il Sung expressed his regret that the National Defense University, now named the Kim Jong Un National Defense University, was too far away from the capital and wished for it to be located closer to Pyongyang. 

His orders were immediately put into place. In the fall of 1990, construction began to take place in Pyongyang’s Yongsong district. The project involved researchers and employees from the State Academy of Sciences, field engineers and military factory workers from the Second Economic Committee, the central coordinating body of the North’s military-defense industry.

University students were also included in the construction of the new military academy. In fact, most students in the country took part in the 10-year construction effort until its completion in 2000. North Korean authorities built the military academy using student labor as part of their emphasis on “self-reliance.” Ultimately, the students suffered by being unable to go to classes and receive a proper education.

However, after the completion of the military academy, North Korean authorities faced a problem: who would they send to this new university in Jagang Province? 

After much secret discussion, the authorities ultimately decided to move students from the Lee Jae Sun Military Academy which was located in Rimwon, Pyongyang. The Lee Jae Sun Military Academy cultivated military officers who would serve at the Sino-North Korean border. The authorities concluded that it would be more effective for officers at this university to be closer to the border.


The authorities naturally kept the decision a secret because it was obvious that the soldiers in Pyongyang as well as their family members would be opposed to the move. The authorities knew that if word got out, they would face protests for being moved to such an isolated area even if the same level of rations were promised. 

When the relocation order was handed down, the school’s staff, students and their families led an uproar. People were talking about getting a divorce and some even went as far as saying they preferred to die. Many citizens in Pyongyang had similar feelings about the situation. The idea of having to leave Pyongyang for such a desolate place was unbearable and the news came as a major shock to everyone. 

The forced relocation order turned proud Pyongyangites into residents of an isolated part of Jagang Province, while those who had attended the National Defense University became residents of the capital city. All of this because of Kim Il Sung’s sudden wish and his son Kim Jong Il’s subsequent obsession with his father’s teachings.

Kim Il Sung’s sudden decision to move the defense university from Jagang Province to Pyongyang ended up uprooting the lives of countless families. To this day, many don’t want to remember the time they were forcibly relocated. 

The land on which the Lee Jae Sun Military Academy took over in Jagang Province was far more than was really needed. Today, about 30% of the land is currently being used by Kanggye Engineering University.

Translated by Gabriela Bernal and edited by Sabrine Donohoe

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

Read in Korean