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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The BBC on “Educating North Korea”

by and Kevin Stahler | February 10th, 2014 | 07:07 am
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Last week, BBC One Panorama aired a documentary titled “Educating North Korea” on the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). The PUST experiment, the remarkable product of the efforts of its Korean-American president James Chin-Kyung Kim and his supporters, raises all of the issues of engagement we have debated in several recent posts, including the highly skeptical statements by B. R. Myers (here and in a more extended interview at the Global Post here).

For good reason, the documentary itself has not fared well among North Korea watchers. We can state the problem as a general law: the more stock footage of goose-stepping soldiers, the less likely you are to find nuggets of insight. The opening setup reverts to the usual tropes of brainwashed North Koreans who “worship their leader like a god” and the obligatory nods to the nuclear program, material deprivation and human rights abuses. Later, a correspondent asks a class of students whether they had heard of Michael Jackson. The resulting blank stares–the “gotcha!” moment for how hopelessly out of touch North Korea is–instead just magnified the solipsism of the interviewer. As several of our colleagues pointed out, there are better paragons of Western civilization than Jackson — and you can bet that the UK’s KFA chapter and their unfortunately-named allies at ASSPUK had a field day with the BBC’s “imperialist arrogance.” As we have argued repeatedly, the belief that interviews with North Koreans under the watchful eye of minders are going to yield deeply subversive insights is not only naïve; it precisely reflects the failure to understand what you are seeing.

With all of these reservations, the film nonetheless provides an interesting window into the daily regimen of the elite all-male PUST student body, now about 500 in total, their interactions with the mostly Western English-speaking instructors, and their efforts to comprehend the unfamiliar territory of global business practices. Proponents, including Christian donors and UK parliamentary backers, argue that besides providing much-needed technical skills in sciences, technology, and management, the school necessarily functions as a “Trojan horse” for change, building a new generation of leaders more likely to question the party line. As Mark Fitzpatrick puts it most clearly in the segment, if change is going to come in the DPRK, it will come precisely from this elite.

However, “Educating North Korea” provides a somewhat more mixed picture of likely success. Any interaction with the BBC correspondent that goes on too long is broken up, and we learn that those pushing the edge of the envelope are easily purged; one foreign business instructor is not invited to return and another is refreshingly open about the edited, negotiated nature of all classroom instruction. We cringe when President Kim talks about being completely free at PUST to do as he pleases; if taken at face value, the North Koreans have read the effort correctly as an ultimately harmless way to attract Western funding and training. Greg Scarlatoiu of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea puts the case for the prosecution more strongly: “if the price to pay to be allowed to establish a presence inside North Korea is ignoring North Korea’s egregious human rights violations, I would say that price is too high.”

Obviously, the scripted student testimony we get from the documentary does little to portend which way the wind is blowing. However, there are a number of PUST foreign instructor interviews in the documentary, as well as a very interesting two-part discussion with a recent American lecturer over at North Korea Tech (here and here) – which provide a more nuanced internal view of the institution. In the end, our view is that even technical education has at least some value, since it undergirds a rationalist view of the world that itself is ultimately subversive. And if we are concerned about human welfare, knowing something about crop science trumps Juche planning directives.

But it’s a long way from these humanitarian premises to a belief that PUST-like efforts will generate political change; the ability of the regime to control such experiments is on painful display throughout the BBC story. This sort of engagement has to be seen as a very long game with at least some probability that the political effects are marginal.

If you are in the UK, you can watch the full documentary from the official site here. If you are located elsewhere – and harbor the firm belief that information wants to be free – a version has also been put up on Youtube.