The University of Iowa

In Japan, a North Korean Campus Keeps National Identity Alive

August 9th, 2010

This is an excerpt of an article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Read the full article here.

The library of the North Korean University in Tokyo. Japanese magazines on the left and North Korean magazines on the right. Photo by Androniki Christodoulou

By David McNeill

North Korea’s red, white, and blue flag flutters on the campus, signs are written in Hangul, and female students stroll through the corridors wearing the traditional jeogori costume. Professors lecture beneath iconic portraits of the father-and-son hereditary dictatorship that has run the reclusive Stalinist state since 1948.

Roughly 800 miles from P’yongyang in Tokyo’s leafy western suburbs, Korea University is an anomaly, an intellectual oasis in a society that distrusts and even despises the ethnic group it caters to—native Koreans loyal to P’yongyang. The institution has never received financial support or even official recognition from the government of Japan.

The university is part of a network of educational institutions established decades ago to serve the Korean population here. Its students wrestle with politics and computer science but also the philosophy of the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, and the merits of their isolated country’s fossilized centralized government. Surrounded by one of the planet’s most high-tech cities, undergraduates spend their entire four years in Spartan on-campus dorms designed to encourage shared collective identity.

“Part of what we do here is protect our culture,” said the institution’s president, Chang Byong-tai. “Our country and our identity were stolen from us by Japan.”

While unusual, the university for the most part resembles other higher-education institutions, with some notable exceptions. A tour reveals a quiet campus, with aspiring teachers taking a music lesson and students reading in the library, where yellowed English-language newspapers from P’yongyang sat on shelves.

The university offers a standard range of courses, including languages, history, economics, and hard sciences, and has carved out a niche offering legal and other specialist qualifications to Koreans. It has become an academic pit stop for Korean students on their way to Japanese graduate universities.

Set up in 1956, the university is struggling to survive. Hit hard by the decline in Japan’s Korean population, enrollment has plummeted to just 800 students, down from 1,500 in the mid-1990s. Student fees pay for 70 percent of the institution’s costs; donations and endowment investment earnings pay for the rest. Cash from P’yongyang, once a lifeline, has dried up to a thin, unreliable trickle.

“We’re very worried about the future,” said Mr. Chang.

Read the full article.