Inside North Korea's Western-funded university

The BBC's Panorama had unprecedented access to Pyongyang University of Science and Technology

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In the heart of North Korea's dictatorship, a university - largely paid for by the West - is attempting to open the minds of the state's future elite. The BBC's Panorama has been granted unique access.

Entering the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, it is immediately clear this is no ordinary academic institution.

A military guard salutes us as our vehicle passes through the security checkpoint. Once inside the campus we hear the sound of marching and singing, not more guards but the students themselves.

They are the sons of some of the most powerful men in North Korea, including senior military figures.

"Our supreme commander Kim Jong-un, we will defend him with our lives," they sing as they march to breakfast.

"Patriotism is a tradition," explains a 20-year-old first-year student. "The songs we sing as we march are in thanks to our Great Leader."

There are 500 students here - dressed smartly in black suits, white shirts, red ties and black, peaked caps with briefcases at their sides. They are all hand-picked by Kim Jong-un's regime to receive a Western education.

The university's official aim is to equip them with the skills to help modernise the impoverished country and engage with the international community.

All classes are in English and many of the lecturers are American. This is remarkable because North Korea has isolated itself from the outside world for decades and the US is its hated enemy.

After 18 months of negotiations, we have been given unique access to the students - though we are constantly monitored. The students explain they are warming to Americans - if not the US government.

''Of course at first we were nervous, but we now believe American people are different from the US," says one student. "We want to make good relationship with all countries," adds another.

Pyongyang University of Science and Technology The university, located on the outskirts of Pyongyang, was opened in October 2010

The founder and president is Dr James Chin-Kyung Kim. The 78-year-old Korean-American Christian entrepreneur was invited by the regime to build a university based on a similar one he had opened in northern China.

He raised much of the £20m it cost from American and South Korean Christian charities.

"I am full of thanks to this government - they accepted me. They fully trust me and have given me all authority to operate these schools. Can you believe it?"

It is hard to believe - human rights groups say North Korean citizens found practising Christianity are persecuted.

Inside every classroom, portraits of North Korea's brutal dictators take pride of place above the whiteboard.

Lecturer Colin McCulloch gives his time for free. Some of the other 40 lecturers are sponsored by Christian charities. Mr McCulloch has moved from Yorkshire to teach business to the regime's future elite.

He splits the students into groups and tells them to form their own fantasy companies and compile their profit projections.

In a country where the supply of all goods is controlled by the regime, the concept of a free market is new to the students.

North Korea university parade ground workout Students take part in a parade-ground workout before lunch every day

"I'm sure the leaders and the government here recognise they need to connect with the outside world," Mr McCulloch tells us. "It's not possible to be a totally hermetic, closed economy in the modern age."

The university's foreign lecturers are up against a lifetime of propaganda and conditioning - and almost complete isolation from the rest of the world, as we discover when American Erin Fink invites us to take part in her English class.

"It will be good for you to listen to these guys because their accent is very different from my accent - they speak British English," she explains to her first year undergraduates.

They tell us they like a North Korean girl group called the Moranbong Music Band, one of Kim Jong-un's latest propaganda tools.

Start Quote

We are learning foreign languages because foreign language is the eye of scientists. Learning a language is learning a culture. I want more of that”

End Quote Undergraduate student

When we mention Michael Jackson, we get a room full of blank faces. We try again.

"Raise your hands if you've heard of Michael Jackson." Not a single arm goes up.

You might have thought students would have found out about Michael Jackson from the Internet - unlike most of North Korea it is available at the university.

But in the computer room a female minder censors all internet access. It is strictly no email, no social media, and no international news.

In North Korea, only absolute devotion to the supreme leader, and praise of all things North Korean, is permitted. According to human rights groups, that devotion is the result of conditioning from birth - and fear of execution or imprisonment in inhumane labour camps.

"The key question is whether the university is training those young Koreans most likely to change the country in a positive way, or those most likely to perpetuate the current regime," says Greg Scarlatoiu of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

"If the price to pay for being allowed to establish a presence inside North Korea is ignoring the country's egregious human rights violations, I will say that price is too high."

Lord Alton chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and is a patron of the university.

He hopes the experiment could kick-start more fundamental change and alter the mindset of a generation.

"You have to start somewhere. This isn't an excuse for appeasement, which I'm totally opposed to.

"This is a form of engagement in order to try and change things."

But are the students actually interested in embracing change? Even during the guarded conversations that we are allowed, it is clear some students are keen to connect with the outside world.

"We are learning foreign languages because foreign language is the eye of scientists," says one undergraduate.

"And learning a language is learning a culture. I want more of that."

Panorama: Educating North Korea, BBC One, Monday 3 February at 20:30 GMT and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

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