North Korean university seeks online lecturers

Insular nation’s only private university hopes online teaching revolution means it can attract ordinary lecturers, not just adventurers

February 22, 2022
North Korea’s late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hang on a wall over a bank of computers at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology
Source: David Guttenfelder/AP/Shutterstock

A top academic at North Korea’s only private university hopes that pandemic-driven remote working could be a golden opportunity for it to attract more international staff.

Colin McCulloch, director of external relations at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), hopes that digital teaching could reinvigorate his university, drawing in candidates who may not have previously considered teaching posts – unpaid ones – in the insular nation.

The recent struggle to switch to remote teaching could be a blessing in disguise, especially after the turmoil of recent years, said Professor McCulloch, who has been teaching from the UK since the pandemic began.

In 2017, a new US sanctions regime banned all Americans from travelling to North Korea, effectively stripping the university of more than half of its teaching staff, many of whom were Americans of Korean extraction. “We were hanging on by our fingernails,” Professor McCulloch recalled.

Then in spring 2020 the advent of the pandemic left many of PUST’s remaining teachers far from their students as North Korea’s border sealed.

“By contrast with the deep disappointment of that cut-off with the Americans not able to go to the country…the silver lining in the cloud of the pandemic is that we’re now able to open up recruiting more broadly to people who wish to stay in their own country,” he said.

But even before recent events threw a spanner in its recruitment plans, PUST had to work harder than most institutions to bring in international faculty, given the nature of North Korea.

“It’s difficult to find the top-class specialist academic staff that we need,” said Professor McCulloch. “Asking people to go for several weeks, even one month, that’s quite a big ask – the travel is not that easy."

Even for the academics who do sign up for a post at PUST, logistics can be complicated. Provided academics clear several bureaucratic hurdles – not standing out as critics of the country’s ruling regime, for instance – they face a long road to enter the country.

The metaphor verges on literal, as any visitors to the country cannot simply enter from South Korea. They need to take numerous planes to enter the country, most likely from a remote border region of China – a trip that used to take several days from Europe, even before Covid-19.

“Now people can actually keep their regular job and lifestyle here in Britain or elsewhere and work with us by just presenting courses,” said Professor McCulloch.

While the stipend offered by PUST covers on-campus housing and food, the university can’t actually afford to offer applicants a salary, instead relying on “volunteers”, often those who are paid through religious organisations or hold other part-time work.

But Professor McCulloch emphasised that the institution isn’t just out to recruit anyone who raises their hand. Ideally, it wants academics who are interested in long-term relationships, perhaps building toward an offer by their institutions to host North Korean students later on.

“This is really about making a connection rather than just hiring extra people,” he said.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: North Korean university seeks online lecturers in post-Covid era

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