…and its evangelical Christian founder
Documentaries about life in North Korea are always worth catching, and the BBC’s Panorama has just broadcast an interesting piece on Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a private university where 500 hand-picked students are allowed by the regime to study business and technology skills under Western lecturers – albeit under close monitoring and restricted conditions.
One quirky element is that the students are all male but most of the guards are female, but also unexpected is that the founder and president is a US-Korean evangelical named James Chin-Kyung Kim (var. Kim Chin-Kyung). The programme, presented by Chris Rogers, concentrated on student life and what the existence of such an anomalous institution means for North Korea, although Kim himself would be a interesting documentary topic. There is input from Lord David Alton, who previously wrote about Kim for a website called Felix in 2010:
The university had its genesis in 1987 in a series of intermittent visits to Pyongyang.
Initially, he was treated as a curiosity by the regime. After the death of Kim Il Sung the climate changed and, during a visit in 1998, Dr Kim was arrested and thrown in jail, accused of being an American spy.
The situation appeared so bleak that he was told to write a will – and, in keeping with his vow to give everything back to his country – he even told his captors that once they had executed him they could have his body parts for medical research.
James Kim told me that “The North Korean Government was moved and allowed me to return to my home in China.” It was the first time someone was released after the death penalty was imposed. He made no public complaints about what had occurred 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.”
Kim appears in photo with Alton and with the oddly ubiquitous Baroness Cox.
Kim’s own story is told in a book entitled Loveism (published by Hongsungsa), which is in Korean but which was helpfully summarised by an evangelical website last November. According to this memoir, Kim served in the Korean war “as the youngest soldier”, aged 15, during which he was converted to Christianity by an American chaplain. He then studied philosophy at Soongsil University and became a high-school German teacher, before travelling to Europe, where he stayed at L’Abri in Switzerland at the invitation of Francis Schaeffer and afterwards studied for a Master’s degree in England. After that he returned to South Korea, where he founded a seminary and started a taxi company. However, he lost his money after being ripped off by a friend, prompting him to move to the USA. Next, he did a PhD and opened a shoe shop, which then led to a successful clothing company.
Then, in the 1980s, Kim was invited to an institute of science and society in China. Recalling that his father had founded a farming school in northeast China during the Japanese colonial period, Kim decided to create the Yanbian University of Science and Technology for ethnic Koreans, for which he eventually got approval after a two-year wait. This institution, known as YUST, formed the template for PUST in North Korea.
So, he keeps busy. But it’s not quite a one-man band: according to a book called The Teaching Ministry of Congregations, by Richard Robert Osmer, funding for YUST has come from the Somang Presbyterian church of Seoul, a prominent and politically well-connected church in South Korea.
The BBC documentary also follows Kim to worship at the Bongsu Church, a showcase place of worship for foreign workers in Pyongyang. Odd scenes ensue: it was clear that some of the attendees - looking bored and awksward – were there for purely for show, dipping an empty hand into the collection bag. The church was rebuilt a few years ago in partnership with the South Korean Presbyterian Church Association; its status is controversial, with some South Korean Christians denouncing it as a “fraud“, although Franklin Graham (whose mother went to school in Pyongyang back when it was the “Jerusalem of the East”) preached there in 2008.
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