The Man Behind North Korea’s Only Private University

Why you should care

Because he’s trying to open up channels to this closed-off country.

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“What does your father do? Are you married? Do you want to eat at our school cafeteria?” My interviewee bombards me with questions before I can ask mine. James Chin-Kyung Kim may be 82 years old, but he’s as sprightly as his pink-and-navy checkered shirt. This Korean-American logs more than 120 flights each year, spending about a third of his time in bleak Manchuria, a third in bleaker Pyongyang, and the last third globe-trotting to raise money and recruit professors for the two universities he spearheaded.

In 1992, Kim established the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST), China’s first foreign university, which enrolls approximately 1,600 students from 13 countries. That was followed in 2010 by the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), North Korea’s first foreign university built entirely with resources from outside the totalitarian regime. To date, more than $35 million has been injected into PUST, which sits on a 240-acre campus and enrolls 500 undergraduate and graduate students. Together, the schools boast more than 20,000 alumni, whom Kim refers to as his children.

He made a divine wager: If I survive the war, I will devote my life to serving North Korean and Chinese foes with “God’s love.”

But 2017 was a rough year for the two institutions. North Korean authorities detained two Korean-American professors at PUST, and the U.S. State Department’s ban on Americans residing in North Korea meant that Kim, the university president, and the roughly half of PUST’s 80 professors who hold American passports had to flee Pyongyang. What’s more, since both schools are Christian-affiliated and both communist states prohibit missionary work, a number of YUST professors have been deported for evangelizing.

“YUST is like a candle in front of wind now,” says Kim Un-ju, a 2015 grad who returned to her alma mater for an administrative job, “but it will overcome challenges as it has in the past.” A PUST employee, who would only speak anonymously, says he is worried the U.S. State Department will shut down the university. “The sanctions make it imperative that PUST keeps the channel of communication open and continues to educate North Korean youths about the world beyond,” he says.

Kim pioneered China’s foreign partnership university model — adopted by more than 100 institutions including Duke University and New York University — without a penny of support from Beijing. Today YUST is self-sustaining from tuition, but PUST bleeds about $1 million each year because every student is on scholarship. Where does the money come from? Kim says he gets his “daily bread” from the “bank of heaven” — and he’s not kidding. Most funds flow from South Korean megachurches eager to Christianize part of Korea that used to be called the Jerusalem of the East.

The bigger question, however, is how did Kim charm his way into communist regimes allergic to foreigners? The tale begins in China (“Without YUST, there would be no PUST,” Kim explains). When reform swept the country in the 1980s, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences invited Kim to lecture on economic liberalization. The country was emerging from decades of Maoist turmoil, and Korea provided an attractive model, as its military dictators cranked out vertiginous growth while maintaining a death grip on the government.

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James Chin-Kyung Kim at his Yanbian University of Science and Technology office on Sept. 10, 2011.

Source Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping famously proclaimed it doesn’t matter whether the cat that catches mice is black or white, but Kim was a strange cat to be teaching economics in China. When the Korean War broke out, he volunteered, at the age of 15, for the South Korean student brigade to fight against the North Koreans and the Chinese. As he watched his comrades get mutilated in the trenches, Kim says he became born again through the Gospel of John handed down by an American chaplain. He made a divine wager: If I survive the war, I will devote my life to serving North Korean and Chinese foes with “God’s love.”

After completing an undergraduate degree in philosophy in South Korea, Kim attended seminary in Switzerland and earned a master’s in theology in the U.K. His doctoral dissertation from Berean Christian College in Florida was on Confucian philosophy, but a naturalized American cousin managed to lure Kim into commerce. He launched several ventures in Florida, selling wigs shipped from Korea and trendy clothes from Europe.

Kim became a U.S. citizen in 1985 but sold his businesses in 1988 to migrate to China, the year before the Tiananmen massacre. While foreign journalists excoriated Deng for his crackdown on students, Kim defended the deployment of government tanks, asserting in a published column that revolution should not be permitted to derail China’s reforms, and that foreigners shouldn’t meddle in the Middle Kingdom’s rules of governance.

Meanwhile, Kim was running a humanitarian operation to smuggle rice and other supplies to North Korea when a devastating famine struck in 1994. When a colleague was arrested without explanation during a 1999 mission trip to North Korea, Kim traveled, persuading authorities to release his colleague in exchange for imprisoning him. Kim was summarily sentenced to death for attempting to subvert the regime. Days later, again without explanation, Kim was set free. And two years later, the president of Kim Il Sung University, accompanied by two North Korean interrogators, came knocking at YUST to ask Kim to build an analagous university in Pyongyang. The North Koreans didn’t offer a cent in support — still Kim agreed.

With initial coursework in IT, business, agriculture and life sciences, PUST’s guiding principles are openness (free internet access is supposedly available in all campus buildings) and global learning. And while some criticize the university for helping to shore up Pyongyang’s elites and accelerate their military technology, Kim’s faith in his institutions remains unshaken.

Today, the octogenarian is finally showing signs of slowing down. “President Kim doesn’t call me at night or dawn to come work with him,” says Lee Jong-ik, head of facilities at YUST and Kim’s longtime colleague. But the trailblazer is still in motion, bouncing around the globe to advance learning in the world’s last bastions of communism.

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