The news, reported first by a pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan, suggests that despite ongoing political tension with the US, North Korea is liberalising some facets of North Korean life and society.
“It is very hard to tell the real motivation at this moment”
According to Choson Sinbo, the North Korea-facing Japanese publication, international students will be allowed to study a range of courses, from economics, history and law at the institution.
Sheng-Ju Chan, deputy dean for research and development at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, is an expert in Asian international education. He told The PIE News he doubts the genuine motivation for North Korea’s announcement has been revealed.
“As to the new move of North Korea in widening the acceptance of international students, it is very hard to tell the real motivation at this moment.
“It might be based on the ‘curiosity need’ of international students rather than the initial sign of an ‘opening door’. Or North Korea might just use this strategy to ‘show off’ their ‘openness’ or ‘internationalisation’ instead of liberalisation,” he said.
Chan noted that in the current geo-political climate, it is unlikely that Pyongyang is truly opening its doors to international influences.
[The] majority of North Korea’s recent moves indicate that they are not interested in complying with the mainstream international order or values.”
“I think we need more critical evidence to confirm why they want to expand greater connection with outside world,” Chan added.
Around 100 foreign students are thought to be studying at Kim Il Sung University at present, although the nationalities of the scholars are telling. The majority are understood to hail from China, Russia and Vietnam – all regional allies of the Kim family-controlled nation.
However, students from the US and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) are barred from certain courses, such as publicly advertised study tours, and it is unclear if they would be welcome to apply to study in Pyongyang.
US passport holders are now effectively banned (by the US government) from travelling to North Korea after the death of Otto Warmbier, a US student who entered North Korea as a student in January 2016, but was subsequently detained, and died soon after his eventual release.
“Kim Il Sung offered free education to the Vietnamese exchange students”
The university advertises its international outlook on its website, with a focus on how the university is open to international academic cooperation and exchange.
An invitation to the “International Forum and International Symposium in celebration of the 70th Anniversary of Kim Il SungUniversity” can also be found on the site, and is indicative of some international outreach on behalf of Kim Jong Un’s alma mater.
Another key to understanding how the university (and nation) embrace internationalisation can be seen under the “Great Leadership” tab. Titled ‘Fatherly Love for Exchange Students’, the document gives a description of a meeting between the first North Korean leader and Vietnamese students.
“Kim Il Sung manifested an enormous support to and solidarity with the Vietnamese people after the Korean War including the offer of providing free education to the Vietnamese exchange students.”
It is clear that history is very important to the North Korean establishment. The US bombing of the Korean peninsula is frequently cited as a reason behind the torrid diplomatic relations between the nations. The Vietnamese assistance to the Communist North during the war seemingly also endures in the state’s collective memory.