Study Abroad in North Korea

As country opens somewhat to American students, proponents describe unprecedented opportunities for exchange, while critics wonder ask if restrictions raise questions about academic legitimacy.
March 9, 2011

Pack a suitcase for Pyongyang. Study Korean in Kaesong. North Korea may be an unlikely destination for study abroad, but its border has been breached. The P'yongyang Project, a Beijing-based nonprofit organization, has been organizing study tours, or “delegations,” to North Korea since 2009, and this summer Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, plans to become the first American university to offer a credit-bearing study abroad program above the 38th parallel.

"This is an amazing opportunity for Lafayette College and, frankly, for Americans to get into parts of the world that many people think are completely blocked off," says Allison Alexy, an assistant professor of anthropology and Japan expert who will co-lead the program. "Part of the point of this program is that nothing and no one and no culture is nearly as isolated as we might think it is, and it seems this might be a great way to demonstrate that point experientially."

The 2.5-week program, organized by the P'yongyang Project, will focus on intersections between the cultures of China, North Korea and South Korea. Students will split their time between the three countries, spending five days in North Korea, traveling to Pyongyang, the capital; Nampo, on the western coast; and Kaesong, near the demilitarized zone. Per the itinerary, planned excursions and activities within North Korea include visiting Kim II Sung’s mausoleum, a Korean history museum and a "people’s commune"; meeting with students at Kim II Sung University and Kim Ch’aek Science and Technology University; attending the famous Arirang Mass Games, watching a performance of the Pyongyang Circus, and riding the rides (imported from Italy) at the Pyongyang Amusement Park. Students will tour the DMZ from the North with a Korean People’s Army guide, and will also have the opportunity, later in the program, to visit the DMZ from the South Korea side.

"We’ve organized the program so it’s really about appreciating and acknowledging the different cultures in Northeast Asia, not including Japan, unfortunately, but China, North Korea, and South Korea, and also paying attention to the ways that different cultures are connected," Alexy says.

Safety and Security

Lafayette’s plans, of course, are premised on a stable geopolitical situation. “I’ve never organized a study abroad program before, so I can’t really compare, but I imagine that compared to other ones, we probably have more elaborated plans in terms of what to do if there’s a problem,” Alexy says. She stresses that the program is structured in such a way that, should any new risk arise, the college can and will immediately cancel the North Korea portion of the program. All students will obtain a visa to North Korea and will enter through an immigration point at Pyongyang International Airport. Once they are in the country, there are plans to evacuate immediately via charter flight or train should any political unrest occur. And, in terms of medical care, Alexy says that North Korean hospitals won’t be an option -- should a student become ill, he or she would be treated out of the country or at a clinic operated by the Swedish embassy, which provides limited consular services for U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea.

The U.S. does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea, and has issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens planning a trip. It reads, in part: "Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea without proper documentation, even accidentally, have been subject to arrest and long-term detention."

"Even if you are a U.S. citizen entering North Korea with a valid passport and a valid visa for North Korea, you may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned for knowingly or unknowingly violating the laws of North Korea…. North Korean authorities have detained foreign nationals who questioned the policies, public statements, or the actions of the current or former leadership of North Korea. North Korean authorities may also view taking unauthorized pictures as espionage, confiscate cameras and film, and/or detain the photographer."

The U.S. State Department travel warnings serve as a barometer when it comes to risk assessment in study abroad. Some colleges maintain blanket prohibitions against study abroad in countries with travel warnings, while others subject student travel to those destinations to extra scrutiny. Travel to North Korea, however, may present a special case.

"My instincts are always in favor of supporting undergraduates in their plans for study abroad in nontraditional environments. But North Korea strikes me as a 'bridge too far,' ” says Douglas Stuart, a professor of international studies at Dickinson College who has also directed the institution’s European Studies Center in Bologna. "I am sure that the folks who are organizing this trip have taken every precaution that they can take to ensure the safety of the students. But the leadership in Pyongyang is simply too unpredictable, and the overall situation in the country is simply too fragile. This is a country with a per capita GDP of about $970 -- ranked 19th in the world on Foreign Policy's 'failed states index.' The industrial and tourist zones that have been established are always vulnerable to closure or restrictions. As we have seen recently in the Middle East, dramatic changes can happen quickly and without warning, and they can have unpredictable contagion effects across borders."

To date, safety has not been an issue, says Matthew Reichel, the program director and co-founder of the P'yongyang Project, "as long as you go in legally. We go in with visas. We’re supported. Everything that we do is sanctioned by the Koreans."

Academic Inquiry

But even leaving issues of safety and security aside, is study abroad in North Korea a good idea? Can the values of academic exchange be realized in such a setting?

On its website, the P'yongyang Project describes its mission as “straightforward: to forge a new level of academic cooperation and cultural exchange between North Koreans and Westerners. We firmly believe that peaceful engagement, dialogue and cooperation between citizens -- American and North Korean -- is the most direct way to build trust, promote mutual respect, and lay the foundation for peace and prosperity between North Korea and the global community.”

"We have to remain a very diplomatic, apolitical, a-religious, a-anything organization," Reichel says. "Engagement is the only stance we’ve taken."

Reichel says the scope of this engagement has increased significantly in just the last two years. The P'yongyang Project began by offering "delegations," essentially short-term study tours, attended by professors and students, mostly from the United States (Alexy, of Lafayette, attended one of these tours). Having laid that foundation, the P'yongyang Project is now expanding its range of programs – most ambitiously, there are tentative plans for a two-month Korean language study program at Kim II Sung University. If the program is ultimately approved by government authorities, students will live in the dorms, study under North Korean professors, and practice their grammar with North Korean university students who will serve as language partners. "The experience of getting to live in Pyongyang for two months is really going to be unprecedented," Reichel says.

However, such opportunities come with restrictions that might seem to contradict the spirit of academic inquiry that study abroad is intended to foster. Among the rules listed for the P'yongyang Project’s various programs are limitations on not just photography but also publishing: “Joining a program with the purpose of writing or publishing articles, journalist pieces, and photographs is strictly forbidden. Our trust in [North Korea] -- which allows us to accomplish what we do -- has taken a long time to build. We do not want to put that trust in jeopardy. Therefore if you plan on publishing anything that you write or photograph from your program you must seek explicit permission from The P’yongyang Project before doing so." The rules also point to the restricted, or at best shepherded nature of the programs: "While in North Korea, you will be accompanied by North Korean staff at all times. There is extremely limited individual freedom of movement in North Korea and you are strictly forbidden from leaving the group without explicit permission from The P'yongyang Project staff. You are not allowed outside of hotels without Korean program staff present."

The rules also stipulate that, “As guests in a different country it is important to respect and follow the laws and customs of our hosts. This may include bowing your head at important national monuments and statues.”

“It’s about building trust, and establishing a basis for this trust,” Reichel says.

But to what end? Richard Boltuck, an economist who has lived in South Korea, has been critical of study abroad to North Korea. “It’s not an authentic scholastic experience,” he says. "The rules of contact with ordinary people are so rigid and insurmountable that one is bound to only have contact with people who are selected basically to represent a certain point of view.

“The second concern I have is that it’s financing the regime. This is an odious regime. It’s constantly seeking hard currency for a variety of purposes that don’t seem to involve necessarily the welfare of the people, at least not in a broadly distributed way.”

Brian Myers, director of the international studies department at Dongseo University, in South Korea, says it’s difficult to characterize the potential value of sending undergraduates to North Korea. "As a university student in West Germany in the 1980s, I went to East Berlin often and even stayed a few weeks in an East German town near the Polish border. Arguably my hard currency was doing its bit to prop up a dictatorship, but I learned to appreciate my own freedom more, and was stimulated to research propaganda in one-party states, something I still do today. I would like to think that of the many young people who visit North Korea, one or two of them might be inspired to conduct serious research on some aspect of the place. In North Korean studies we can use all the researchers we can get." (It’s worth noting that as a scholar critical of North Korea, Myers can no longer obtain permission to enter the country himself.)

Yet, beyond the more basic question whether to study abroad in North Korea, Myers also states specific qualms regarding some of the P'yongyang Project’s rules, in particular the suggestion that students might bow their heads at national monuments and statues -- an act that Myers describes as a “political act of tribute to a dictatorship," one that "will be seen and likely publicized by the hosts as such. Yet the P'yongyang Project treats it as a mere affair of law-abiding conduct and cultural sensibility, something guests in a foreign country should do as a matter of course…. For a so-called project with academic goals -- mainly that of enhancing insight and understanding -- to ask American students to pay public tribute to a dictatorship is unethical in the extreme.”

Myers also criticizes the restrictions on publishing. “This regulation alone puts the lie to the P'yongyang Project’s cant about its goals; it shows that this whole exercise has nothing to do with academic work or study in any meaningful sense. ‘Learn what you like, but do not let anyone else benefit from your insight, unless we approve of it first, because the continuation of these tours takes precedence over education.’ That’s really what it amounts to. In short, they are working against insight, against true understanding. I would hope that participants pay about as much attention to this regulation as Kim Jong Il pays to human rights."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top