For the eighth year in a row, six university professors from the secretive state will arrive on the West Coast campus to take part in a one-of-a-kind academic exchange
VANCOUVER — As the world’s eyes fell on Singapore this week and the United States’ historic summit with North Korea, preparations were underway a half a world away for a different — quieter — engagement with the secretive state: the University of British Columbia’s annual welcome for a group of North Korean scholars.
For the eighth year in a row, six North Korean university professors will arrive next month to take part in a one-of-a-kind six-month immersion program that exposes them to courses in business, trade, economics and finance, plus field trips that give them a taste of Canadian culture.
Professor Kyung-Ae Park, who has been quietly running the Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership Program since 2011 and frequently travels to Pyongyang, told the National Post that if the Trump-Kim summit went well, it would be her hope to expand the program to include not just North Korean professors but also bureaucrats and policy experts.
“If the summit goes well and some of the sanctions are relaxed, then I hope we could initiate this — diversifying the participants,” Park said.
“I do think educating those people who are making the real policies is also important. They could make better-informed decisions when they have more knowledge.”
A “secret” briefing document prepared by Global Affairs Canada last year and obtained through an access-to-information request shows that the Canadian government, which approves visas for all program participants, has been keeping close tabs on the program, which it describes as “unprecedented” and “groundbreaking” in North America.
The document states that, while the government is open to helping facilitate the program’s expansion, that “would need to take into account limitations involved with following the government’s official ‘Controlled Engagement Policy’ (CEP) and sanctions regime.”
Elliot Tepper, a Carleton University professor of international relations and an Asian studies specialist, says there’s always a bit of a gamble when non-state actors engage in what’s known as “Track II” or citizen diplomacy.
“There’s always a value choice to be made when dealing with closed regimes with extreme human rights concerns,” Tepper said. “This program, having weighed the options, has determined the gamble is worth taking.”
Prior to the summit, there wasn’t much of a climate that would permit this sort of soft engagement with North Korea to have an impact, he said.
“Perhaps we’re at a turning point where North Korea does wish to enter and join the outside world and provide economic benefits at home, in which case efforts such as these will have borne fruit.”
However, a 2015 column published in the Harvard International Review raised questions about whether UBC’s attempt at “academic diplomacy” could serve to undermine efforts to pressure North Korea into political and social change.
While the program’s goal of imparting greater understanding of economics and trade to North Koreans is laudable, the column stated, “this goal seems at odds with the actions of the Canadian government, which has placed heavy sanctions on the dictatorial regime in hopes of inducing political change.”
The author said it was also likely that the North Korean government, known for its censorship practices, is tightly controlling what knowledge the participants share when they return home.
“If the gained knowledge is not useful to begin with, why would they send them to Canada?
But Park disagreed with these assumptions, pointing out that the sanctions imposed by Canada and the U. S. carry exemptions for academic exchanges.
Park added that she routinely follows up with the visiting scholars after they have returned home and has confirmed that they’ve incorporated what they’ve learned into courses they teach and research papers. They’ve even brought home their UBC textbooks and had them translated into Korean.
“If the gained knowledge is not useful to begin with, why would they send them to Canada?” she said.
Park repeatedly stressed that the program is apolitical. The aim is strictly related to knowledge sharing, opening communications channels and promoting understanding of one another’s countries, Park said.
“I strongly believe that the right to education and access to knowledge is a universal human right,” she said. “In that way, I think we are contributing to promoting human rights in North Korea.”
While at UBC, the visiting scholars live in dorms and enrol in English-language courses in the summer. In the fall, they take business, economics, finance and trade courses alongside UBC students. This year, for the first time, forestry courses will also be part of the mix. (North Korea’s Kim Il Sung University last year opened a forestry sciences department).
The scholars are also taken on field trips to Victoria, Whistler and Toronto to meet business leaders and to learn about Canadian culture.
Park said one of the most common reactions she gets from the visiting scholars is their surprise at the relaxed atmosphere on campus. They are shocked that students can come and go as they please and can eat inside classrooms.
“They ask me: do they have respect for professors?” she said.
Funding —each visiting scholar’s tuition and expenses costs $50,000 — is covered by non-government donors (foundations, private business and individuals), primarily from outside Canada, including the United States and Asia, though not North Korea.
Park said many donors wish to remain anonymous, but did reveal that one is the Harvard-Yenching Institute, a foundation dedicated to “advancing higher education in Asia.”
In addition to hosting North Korean scholars at UBC, Park has convened international academic conferences in North Korea and organized study trips abroad for North Korean scholars in Indonesia and Switzerland.
I gave one group a list of guest lecture topics about the economy, and the first thing they picked was Chinese economic reforms
In a feature story last fall in UBC’s alumni magazine, Yves Tiberghien, former director of the school’s Institute of Asian Research, was quoted as saying that he found the visiting scholars to be humorous, lively and “quite blunt.”
“I gave one group a list of guest lecture topics about the economy, and the first thing they picked was Chinese economic reforms.

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