North Korea’s Canadian classroom

[We have reported several times before about CanKor Brain Trust member Dr. Park Kyung-Ae‘s Knowledge Partnership Program (KPP), which has recently completed the second year that North Korean economics professors attended economics courses at the University of British Columbia (see links at bottom of this article). The following article is taken from a National Post article by Tristin Hopper, which was published on 2 January 2013. –CanKor]

UBC’s latest exchange with hermit nation quietly draws to a close

The University of British Columbia's campus, which played host to North America's only academic exchange with North Korea. (Photo: Postmedia News files)

The University of British Columbia’s campus, which played host to North America’s only academic exchange with North Korea. (Photo: Postmedia News files)

Two weeks ago, six professors packed up their dorm rooms at the quiet, Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia, boarded aircraft at the city’s international airport and began the Jacob’s ladder of flights that would eventually return them home to North Korea.

Just as quietly as it began, the second phase of the Knowledge Partnership Program (KPP), North Korea’s only academic exchange program with North America, had come to a close.

It is the product of a little-known relationship forged even before Canada had opened relations with the Stalinist country, and the University of British Columbia is the only academic institution in North America — and possibly the West — to host regular delegations of North Koreans. Little is known of the program and details are carefully guarded from public scrutiny, but just as a U.S. ping pong team helped open Maoist China to the West, proponents contend that one of UBC’s most obscure international programs may hold the key to opening the borders of one of the world’s most closed countries.

“Particularly when we do not have active interactions between Canada and North Korea, I think academic exchange is really needed,” said Kyung-Ae Park, a UBC political scientist and founder of the KPP.

She called the KPP an early step toward “bilateral relations” with the nation known officially as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

From June to December, professors from three North Korean institutions underwent a study program of English, international trade, finance and economics at UBC, enrolling in standard undergraduate and graduate-level courses.

The group was following in the lead of another sextet of professors who arrived in June 2011, and returned home just in time for the country-wide mourning kicked off by the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Both times, the professors lived in dorms, attended regular classes and were slotted into work groups with other members of the student body. “They’re just like any other students on campus … there’s no special treatment or special space for them,” said Ms. Park.

During downtimes, the group even headed out on field trips to Toronto and Vancouver to sit down with bank managers, corporate directors and the other actors of Canada’s free market economy. “We just asked them to explain how they do business in Canada,” said Ms. Park.

In short, the KPP students are given a surprising amount of flexibility. At both the Beijing and London Olympics, by contrast, members of the North Korean Olympic team were barred from socializing with other athletes or even leaving the Olympic Village to go sightseeing.

Ms. Park is understandably guarded when it comes to speaking about the program she had spent years building. Long before the KPP was even proposed in 2010, Ms. Park was already known as a non-official point-person with North Korea, hosting visiting North Korean delegations and making her own trips to the country every few years.

Still, she said she has no idea why North Korea chose UBC for its inaugural academic partnership above all others. “It wouldn’t be my place to say why they decided to do it with us,” she said.

In her conversation with the Post, Ms. Park is careful to remain strictly apolitical and steer around any mention of words such as “capitalism” and “reform.” The slightest whiff of politics could be all it takes for North Korean officials to scuttle the tenuous arrangement.

“This program just started, so it’s good to keep it low-profile,” she said.

A graduate of South Korea’s Yonsei University — and a director of UBC’s Center for Korean Research — Ms. Park is recognized as an expert in North Korean foreign policy, having made repeated trips to the country since the early 1990s. Canada opened diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2001 on the principle that “dialogue is better than isolation,” as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien put it at the time. In the years since, the relationship has steadily frayed as Canada joined other Western nations by responding to North Koreans nuclear tests and border aggression with ever-tighter economic sanctions.

It is Canada’s virtual invisibility to North Korea, say some proponents, that gives it a leg up in striking the first sparks of a healthy relationship with the West.

UBC officials, meanwhile, are careful to head off accusations that the KPP is an endorsement of Stalinist politics.

“The desire is not to prop up a regime in North Korea, but to open up a country,” Paul Evans, the head of UBC’s Institute for Asian Research, told the Ubyssey, UBC’s student paper, in 2011.

Ms. Park hopes to host another delegation of professors this year — and ultimately orchestrate exchanges of students between the two countries. One day, the North Korean participants of KPP may even be ready for an interviewer’s microphone. But for now, the future and direction of the program remains in North Korean hands.

In a written description of KPP on, a website run by Johns Hopkins University’s U.S.-Korea Institute, Ms. Park wrote that KPP participants are returning home with new knowledge of economic development which could spur “North Koreans to improve the quality of life of their own people.”

UBC is just happy that the door is open.

“Even at the very worst, we’re going to learn things,” UBC spokesman Stephen Owen told the Ubyssey in April. “There doesn’t seem to be any downside to it.”

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