The Predictable Unpredictability of North Korea – and a small cause for hope as North Korea Faces Life Under the Leadership of Kim Jong Un – and the role of Dr.James Kim who will tell the story of the creation of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology at Westminster on February 15th.

Jan 10, 2012 | Uncategorized

David Alton

The Predictable Unpredictability of North Korea – and a small cause for hope. …as North Korea Faces Life Under the Leadership of Kim Jong Un – and the role of Dr.James Kim who will tell the story of the creation of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology at Westminster on February 15th.
On Saturday December 17th the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly died of a heart attack. His death was curiously juxtaposed with that of Vaclav Havel – champion of the Velvet Revolution which peacefully saw the evolution of a communist country into a democratic State. All over the world people have been asking, could North Korea also, one day, come in from the cold?
Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who was partially educated in Switzerland, has been named the ‘Great Successor’.
With the nomenclatura (the Worker’s Party, the State beaurocracy and security services) the Kim family is one of the three strands which wield power –the army, with one million men under arms, is the third of the power players, and is the ultimate arbiter.

The party and army have been dominated by octogenarian contemporaries of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The jury remains out on how they will take to being governed by a 28-year-old, and to the further entrenchment of a family dynasty. It would, however, be foolish to speculate over-much because the only thing which is predictable about North Korea is its unpredictability.
The country’s decision to develop a nuclear capability, its human rights record and disastrous economy, leave it regarded as the neighbour from hell.
And yet, and yet.Anyone who has met individual North Koreans can only admire their extraordinary spirit and the change in leadership does present an opportunity for fundamental change.After my first visit seven years ago I helped establish the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which I chair.
With my colleague Baroness (Caroline) Cox and with the encouragement of the Foreign Office we began a process of “constructive, critical engagement.” In our report “Building Bridges, Not Walls”
( ) we set out a small steps strategy for change.
During my last visit, in October, I saw real evidence that this approach is paying off. I was there to participate in North Korea’s first international conference at its first public-private university: the one year-old Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) – “international” and “private” in a country says it doesn’t do international or private.
We were an unlikely cast – a United States astronaut who had been four times in Space; a Nobel Laureate, who had gained his medal for a breakthrough in chemistry; a former White House advisor who had helped guide the 1972 encounter between Mao and Nixon; a past President of an illustrious American university; and a team of speakers from academia and industry:(
Using science as a vehicle to foster mutual understanding and trust is not a new idea. Scientific engagement and co-operation has often been undertaken between countries which have minimal official relations. During the Cold War the U.S. and the Soviet Union had many scientific exchanges. It was the precursor to US-China co-operation which began with President Nixon’s encounters with Mao and Zhou Enlai in 1972, followed by the Carter-Deng Xiao Ping summit in 1979.The formidable challenges facing humanity – the conquering of disease, food security, the mitigation of natural disasters, sustainable development, the reduction of CO2 emissions, the exploration of Space, the safe use of atomic power and the rest – provide no shortage of areas to enable protocols for scientific co-operation.
Four hundred years ago a clever Italian Jesuit knew the power of science when he began the West’s first encounter with the East. Before embarking on my fourth visit to North Korea, I went to visit his grave, and went to see the magnificent original astronomical instruments given by Ricci and his Jesuit companions to the Emperor Wanli, of the Ming dynasty, and which are still displayed above an ancient Watchtower that once guarded the city, along with an excellent exhibition detailing this first East-West scientific encounterThese first exponents of scientific diplomacy introduced the Chinese to Western scientific achievements and published books which included Basic Geometry; and Astronomy: Fact and Fiction. For doing so, Chinese officials awarded Ricci the epithet “Wise Man of the Great West.”
Advocating the use of “soft power” should not be confused with being a “soft touch.” In dealing with the former Soviet Union Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan clearly understood that.
Not to engage would render pointless Tony Blair’s decision, a decade ago, when he over-ruled his Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and forged diplomatic relations with the DPRK.
One of the most significant outcomes of that decision has been the elevation of English as North Korea’s second official language – the language which is now used for all the teaching at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
In 1950, at the outbreak of the Korean War, James Kim was just 15 years-old. Never-the-less, he enlisted and fought against the north. Of 800 men in his unit he told me that just 17 survived.
One night on the battle- field, after reading the Gospel of St.John, “There and then I vowed to God to work with the Chinese and the North Koreans, then our enemies” – the very forces against whom he had been bearing arms “If I survived the war I promised God that I would devote my life to their service, to peace and to reconciliation.”
In 1960, after the War James Kim came to Britain, where he studied at Bristol’s Clifton Theological College.
Later, he returned to Seoul and, in 1976, began a series of business enterprises in Florida. But he never forgot his vow – a promise which he kept hidden in his heart – and, in the 1980s, he sold his businesses and home to finance a university college in South Korea. By1992 he was ready to export his model of education to China. Yanbian University of Science of Technology, in Yanji, north eastern China, became the country’s first foreign joint-venture university.
It, in turn, became the model for Pyongyang.
Before that could happen, Dr. Kim would be arrested by Kim Jong Il’s North Korean Government – accused of being an American spy – and for 40 days he would languish in jail. He was sentenced to death.
Ordered to write a will – and, in keeping with his vow to give everything back to his country – he told his captors that once they had executed him they could have his body parts for medical research.
In his will and testament he wrote to the US Government that “I died doing things I love at my own will. Revenge will only bring more revenge and it will be an endless cycle of bitter hatred.” In explaining what then occurred, James Kim told me that “The North Korean Government was moved and allowed me to return to my home in China.” He made no public complaints about what had happened and “two years later they invited me back to North Korea and asked whether I would forget our differences and build a university for them like the one I had established in China.”He said yes, but with certain conditions. He was to choose the site of the university; be given the title of the land; be allowed to bring foreign professors to teach; and be authorised to establish a research and development centre.
His stipulations were all met and by a strange serendipity, or maybe Providence, the site he chose proved to have extraordinary significance. It was on this site that a young 29-year-old Welshman, Robert Jermain Thomas, born in Rhayadar South Wales in 1839, was martyred and a church was later built on the site to commemorate his memory.Dr. Kim’s own faith has given him the certain conviction that the North Korean regime “can be touched and messages can be communicated at some level. On a much grander scale we need to deepen the experience of reconciliation.”Through education – which “has the power to transcend nationalistic boundaries and promote cross-cultural understanding and respect” – James Kim believes the situation can ultimately be transformed.
On August 25th of this year Dr. Kim had honorary citizenship conferred on him “for his extraordinary contribution to the nation’s prosperity.” Quite a turnaround from the death sentence conferred upon him earlier. Reminiscent, too, of the honour conferred on Matteo Ricci by the Chinese 400 years ago. This was the first time ever that a foreigner has been awarded honorary citizenship. His certificate has been numbered 001.
. PUST is a window on the world and PUST is a window for the world into Korea. Many “fantastic” tales emerge from North Korea – but this story is fantastic, miraculous even, in the true sense of those words.
PUST is helping to prepare tomorrow’s Korean leaders for the world in which they will live: generation next.
As North Korea faces life after Kim Jong-il we need a variety of confidence building measures which painstakingly and patiently help North Korea to take its place as a welcome member of the world community – and Pyongyang’s University of Science and Technology is a welcome harbinger of what that world might look like.

David Alton – Lord Alton of Liverpool – is Chairman of the British-North Korea All Party Group in the British Parliament. Dr. Kim may be reached at and and visit

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