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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is full of surprises – most of them unpleasant; but here’s one with a possible upside.

It comes in an article for Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish and it concerns the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). This outwardly nondescript institution is remarkable for being reportedly funded by evangelical Christians:

“…many, if not practically all of the American NGOs that operate in North Korea are evangelically Christian. Under strict rules and surveillance, Pyongyang allows dozens, if not hundreds, of missionaries to operate in the country.”

Why would a totalitarian atheist state permit such institutions to operate on its territory? The author argues that the regime is happy to take the missionaries’ money, while preventing them from evangelising the locals:

“One of the few countries in the world with no Christians, it’s easy to see why North Korea attracts missionaries. But why does Pyongyang allow them? Money is one reason: the school cost an estimated $35 million to stand up, with an unknown but presumably sizable chunk of that enriching North Korea’s elite. And perhaps Pyongyang feels the chance of conversions is so small that it’s worth the risk.”

To say that North Korea has “no Christians” is wrong. However, the reality is one of such savage persecution that it is impossible to make a reliable estimate of numbers.

There are a handful of Christian churches in Pyongyang, but these appear to be Potemkin institutions – maintained for the benefit of foreign visitors.

Any foreign missionary allowed into the country is, of course, under the most stringent supervision and control – even to the extent of having to pray in public with their eyes open, in case anyone else notices what they’re up to. Furthermore, there is the risk of arrest and imprisonment – as in the case of Kenneth Bae, a US citizen currently serving fifteen years hard labour.

Nevertheless, the existence of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology seems remarkable – especially as the students are the children of the country’s elite. A former teacher at the university offers the following recollections:

“…the only two English-language writers she ever hears them mention are Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind, and the romance novelist Sidney Sheldon. They had never heard of the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramids of Giza, but inexplicably, they all knew the English expression ‘brain drain.’ ‘When we decided to make origami together,’ she writes, ‘we learned that they knew how to make nothing except war planes.’”

She also claims that despite their youth and elite background they “had at least a few gray hairs” because they were born at the time of the North Korean famine of 1994-1998.

The willingness of the ruling class to entrust foreigners with the education of their children goes right to the very top. Though there is no official confirmation, it is widely thought that Kim Jong-un was educated at a private school in Switzerland.

So there we have it: A secular, socialist elite that imposes its values through a monolithic state system, while availing itself of the opportunities offered by non-state and faith-based educational institutions.

Good job that nothing remotely similar could happen here.

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