Last updated: May 18, 2012 3:57 pm
From Pyongyang to Point Grey: UBC’s special relationship with North Korea
VANCOUVER (CUP) — Last December, Kyung-Ae Park received a phone call in the middle of dinner. The caller told Park that Kim Jong-Il was dead. According to North Korean state television, he had died of a heart attack sustained in his “exertions for his people.”
The phone call interrupted a farewell dinner Park was having with six North Korean professors who had been studying English and international economics at UBC. They were there as part of the Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program (KPP), an academic exchange program that is without precedent in North America.
“I had to tell them,” says Park, a UBC professor of political science who runs the KPP. “We all had to leave in the middle of our dinner.”
After the phone call, the North Korean professors went back to their rooms to scour the news for details on what was happening in their country. The news of Kim’s death had been kept secret for days as North Korean elites hashed out how to deal with its impact. Kim’s son and eventual successor, Kim Jong-Un, is only in his late 20s; he is now the youngest head of state in the world. Western analysts questioned whether the younger Kim could inspire loyalty among the military generals and senior party officials, many of whom were old enough to have fought in the Korean War.
The professors left Canada a few days later. They had already been scheduled to leave, according to Paul Evans, the head of UBC’s Institute for Asian Research (IAR) — but they would have had to leave anyway because all North Koreans on official business around the world were called back to participate in a 14-day mourning ritual for the “Dear Leader.”
The KPP is a direct result of the ties built up over two decades between Canadian and North Korean government officials and scholars. UBC’s relationship with North Korea is “in a different category than any other university in Canada, probably one of two in North America,” says Evans.
In the 1990s, UBC’s Korea specialists were involved with “Track 2” talks, which were unofficial missions to establish diplomatic relations between Canada and North Korea. Park and Evans were both part of the Track 2 missions. Diplomatic relations were finally cemented in 2001, but were suspended in 2010 after North Korea sank a South Korean warship.
Park says the KPP is “unprecedented” in North America, having brought six professors here for six months. Previously, North Korean bureaucrats had only gone on short-term study tours in the United States.
“Only in Australia, Mexico and Geneva have we seen programs of this duration or longer,” says Evans.
With the North Korean professors now gone from UBC, a few questions remain. Was this a one-shot deal, or will we see more North Koreans studying at the university in the future? And if this program is putting UBC at the forefront of understanding North Korea, why don’t we hear more about it?
A polarizing presence
Since the North Korean professors arrived in September 2011, the KPP has largely been ignored by major Canadian media outlets. It received only a brief mention in the Vancouver Sun and Maclean’s. The Ubyssey ran an article about the program in September, but there were no quotes from Park, who generally prefers not to speak with reporters.
The one exception in media coverage has been in East Asia, where the UBC program was reported on aggressively. Besides The Ubyssey, the only interview Park has given was to a reporter from Japan’s second-largest newspaper, the Asahi Shimbun. The Asahi had run an article on the KPP based on a leak by an unnamed source, and Park wanted to clear up the article’s “misinformation.”
“I mainly stuck to the facts,” Park says about her Asahi interview. She clarified where the professors were from: five from Kim Il-Sung University, North Korea’s premier higher learning institute, and one from the Jong Jun Thaek University of Economics. Asahi had also reported the professors were taking Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees at UBC, which was not true; they were taking a mix of graduate and undegraduate courses.
There is good reason for Park to tread carefully with the media. The KPP is rife with political sensitivity. North Koreans see a “direct connection between economic and political change,” says Evans.
Park urged The Ubyssey to hold back from terms like “opening up,” “reform” and “capitalism,” words that have been preached to the North Koreans for decades. Park is also careful not to lump the two Koreas together; that’s why the KPP is not run through UBC’s Centre for Korean Research, which she directs.
Not everyone thinks the KPP is a good idea. Right-wing blogs such as Blazing Cat Fur have attacked the program, accusing UBC of “hosting monsters from a prison nation that jails and murders entire families.” They also refer to CanKor, an online journal on North Korean affairs that Evans and other UBC professors contribute to, as a “propaganda site” for the North Korean regime.
This negative pushback is one reason why it is hard to get information on the KPP’s donors. Park says they donate on condition of anonymity, though she confirmed that neither the Canadian government nor UBC has funded it.
UBC’s special role
The KPP has also caused some disagreement within UBC’s administration. Park says she took pains to achieve “consensus” between UBC Public Affairs, the Office of the President and the Sauder School of Business. It is still unclear what Sauder’s exact role in the program was. Park says that Sauder withdrew participation after the Asahi article. Daniel Muzyka, the Sauder dean, was travelling and unavailable for comment, but did confirm by email that “Sauder was involved in providing learning opportunities along with other UBC entities.” He said there was never any connection between the KPP and Sauder’s MBA program.
Stephen Owen, who was UBC’s VP External when the program was initiated, told The Ubyssey in September that he welcomed the KPP, but was not necessarily committed to it.
“It’s a very tentative program,” said Owen at the time. “It’s the first time it’s been done. We’re not sure where it’s going. Even at the very worst, we’re going to learn things. There doesn’t seem to be any downside to it.”
“It has been part of the ethos of UBC for a generation that we can play a special role with North Korea,” says Evans. “We have language facilities. We have more Korean specialists than any other university in Canada by a long shot.”
Many of the experts involved in the 1990s negotiations to establish diplomatic relations were later hired by UBC, including Joseph Caron, a former Canadian ambassador to North Korea who briefly taught at the Liu Institute for Global Issues.
In 1996, then-UBC president David Strangway courted a North Korean delegation at his private residence, according to Park. After that meeting, Park and senior university executives were invited back to North Korea to discuss “possible links between UBC and North Korea.”
But in 2002, after former U.S. President George W. Bush gave his famous “Axis of Evil” speech, the increasing pressure on North Korea over its nuclear program made it practically impossible to maintain those links. The KPP is an attempt to re-establish some level of dialogue.
Park’s personal skill in negotiating with the North Koreans played a large role in the UBC administration’s acceptance of her proposal for the KPP, after many such proposals had been turned down. Evans says that Park displays a deep understanding of North Korea’s Confucian culture, a culture even more hardened than China’s.
“In Korea, both North and South, personal networks, personal trust are very important,” says Park. Diplomacy and trading can’t happen without that trust.
“We can’t say that’s the only reason [for keeping links], but it’s an important aspect.”
Despite the ever-present international tension over North Korea’s nuclear program and missile tests, there are economic factors that have made it possible to maintain some level of partnership. North Korea experienced a harrowing period of famine and flood in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had provided it extensive food and fuel aid. “Whether they like it or not,” says Park, “[North Koreans] have to start trading with capitalist countries.”
Evans likened North Korea’s situation to China in the early 1980s, after the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, when controls were slowly and experimentally being relaxed on the economy. North Korea has set up special trading towns along the Chinese border where traders are regulated less harshly. Some joint ventures have been opened up with South Korean companies like Hyundai. There was even a resort for South Korean tourists built, although it ended in disaster when a tourist was shot by a North Korean guard.
Park specifically asked to work with the North Korean professors because she wants to affect the next generation.
“Professors can incorporate whatever they learned here in their teaching and even create new courses,” she says. And because the professors are often consulted by bureaucrats, they can have policy implications.
Evans was more skeptical in his assessment. “We’re still at a stage where each of these visits is carefully managed,” he says. “There are strong efforts to learn about what is going on in the outside, but not necessarily [to] come back and recommend it or apply it to their situation.”
Nevertheless, both were optimistic about the future. Park is already negotiating for a new round of professors, this time from more North Korean universities, and hopes that the KPP can serve as a model for other Canadian universities who want to set up similar programs.
Evans hopes to eventually include students in the exchanges.
“I have this vision that, wouldn’t it be great if in five years we had a hundred North Korean students here studying on exchange in our regular courses, and 25 UBC students studying in North Korea?”