Why U.S. Christians Risk Their Lives to Teach at Evangelical University in North Korea

The recent arrest of two American citizens working in North Korea has brought attention to the curious case of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), an American-founded, evangelical-affiliated school in the capital city of the world’s most notorious dictatorship.

It’s hard to think of a less likely place for American Christians to teach than North Korea, a country the United States has not had diplomatic ties with for over 60 years and where religious freedom does not exist.

Kim Hak Song and Kim Sang Duk, both Christians and professors teaching at PUST, the only private university in North Korea, were detained last month on charges of “hostile” acts or intent against the North Korean government—the same allegation that kept Youth With a Mission missionary Kenneth Bae in prison for more than two years, longer than any other American arrested in the country. (Bae was finally released, in ailing health, in 2014.)

PUST, which CT featured in 2012, is open about its affiliation but understandably reserved about evangelicalism. Its spokesperson has stated that the recent arrests are unrelated to activity at the school, which was founded by Korean-American evangelical James Kim in 2010 following the success of a similar venture—Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST)—on the Chinese side of the border.

“An unofficial deal was struck between PUST and the regime that allowed the evangelicals to build the school in Pyongyang, fund it, and teach the students, as long as they do not discuss Christianity in public,” Suki Kim, a writer who lived for six months at PUST, told The Washington Post. “PUST offers a mutually beneficial arrangement for both North Korea and the evangelicals. The regime gets free education for its youth and a modern facility, which can be used for propaganda, while the evangelicals get a footing in the remote nation.”

Both PUST and YUST hire mostly Christian faculty: dozens of US citizens, along with other foreigners, who consider the position missionary work. Suki Kim said the government regulates all curricula, but mostly allows the faculty to practice their faith in private. At any time, officials could opt to punish Christians for their activity or affiliations, sentencing them to severe punishments like lifelong manual labor or death.

Kim Hak Sang worked as a professor in agriculture, hoping to develop more efficient farming methods to allow North Korea to better feed its people. Kim Sang Duk (who also goes by Tony Kim) was a professor at YUST who visited the Pyongyang campus as a guest lecturer in accounting. He was detained when trying to board his return flight to China. Their arrests bring the total number of Americans behind bars in North Korea to four.

“North Korea is persecuting their savior, a person who came to help them,” one of Kim Hak Sang’s classmates told the Christian Post. “This is wrong.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Kate Shellnutt

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