A letter from Simon Park in Korea
Where do we go from here?
The most common question I hear these days is whether I plan to go back to PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology). A short answer is, “I don’t think so.” It is not because I do not believe in the mission of PUST or that I lost interest. It is precisely because I believe in the importance of the mission and I am not able to fulfill the need.
Having spent some time at PUST, two things became very clear to me. First, PUST may be the best opportunity for a long-term collaborative endeavor with the North Koreans. This is a project where neither side just gives or takes; each side needs to give their best and depend on the efforts of the other. This mutual dependency makes a good framework for a sustainable mission project. In my personal opinion, when a project is started with mutual dependency, the eventual transfer of control for the project to the local partner is more acceptable and smoother than in other cases. What Christians provide to PUST at this time is the qualified faculty and the linkage to the Western academic community. This effort requires a far more qualified academic than I am. I have not published any scholarly research papers in accounting and finance for the past 15 years. As much I tried to prepare for the lectures, I was never completely satisfied, although the students probably did not know that. If PUST were an ordinary institution of higher education, I could find a niche teaching introductory survey courses, but for North Korea, this is the place they consider a very important window to the outside world.
Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of higher-level training for the North Koreans in science and technology was done in Russia and in Eastern European countries. North Koreans returning from their education overseas and their family members not only brought back technical abilities but also the experiences to interact with other societies. After the collapse, Russia had neither the economic resources nor the reserve energy to train large numbers of North Koreans, and the Eastern bloc demanded payments for educating North Koreans in their universities. North Korea did not have the money and had the urgent task of building up the Kim Il Sung regime to survive without the backing of the Soviet Union. China was preoccupied with building up their economic infrastructure and was not in a position to step in and fill the gap. Thus North Korea experienced 20 years of intellectual drought along with economic disasters. Kim Jong Il must have envisioned PUST providing the avenue to the world, at least for some selected people in a controlled way. Some may complain that good-willed, but naïve, folks are playing into the hands of the North Korean regime.
Perhaps true, but is that necessarily bad? Couldn’t both sides gain from the partnership, each learning a bit more about their counterpart in the process? I believe in conversation over shouting matches or brinkmanship. PUST offers a wonderful setting where both sides have incentives to stay engaged although their short-term goals may not match completely. In the long run, capable mid-level leaders who are able to interact with the outside world are key resources for the North Korean society, and we all value that. PUST is one, perhaps the only one, institution that requires daily collaboration of North Korean students and staff with the volunteers from outside. This may lead to other opportunities for meaningful engagement.
The second point is that the work must be done well. For the North Korean leaders, this is a very important experiment and they are putting in efforts and resources to make it a success. The volunteer teachers at the university are among the most dedicated people I know. What concerns me is that there are not enough academic professionals to lead and develop the students in world-class research. As stated earlier, I do not have the technical ability to contribute fully in this endeavor. It requires persons with top-notch academic abilities and true discipleship commitments.
Presbyterian World Mission is currently seeking a mission co-worker who would commit to this program. I hope many academic professionals would consider this position carefully. If you would drop me a note, I would be delighted to share my thoughts with you in more detail.
Grace and peace,
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 196